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The Shadow Year: A Novel

The Shadow Year: A Novel

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The Shadow Year: A Novel

4/5 (35 ratings)
340 pages
5 hours
Oct 13, 2009


In New York's Long Island, in the unpredictable decade of the 1960s, a young boy laments the approaching close of summer and the advent of sixth grade. Growing up in a household with an overworked father whom he rarely sees, an alcoholic mother who paints wonderful canvases that are never displayed, an older brother who serves as both tormentor and protector, and a younger sister who inhabits her own secret world, the boy takes his amusements where he can find them. Some of his free time is spent in the basement of the family's modest home, where he and his brother, Jim, have created Botch Town, a detailed cardboard replica of their community, complete with clay figurines representing friends and neighbors. And so the time passes with a not-always-reassuring sameness—until the night a prowler is reported stalking the neighborhood.

Appointing themselves ad hoc investigators, the brothers set out to aid the police—while their little sister, Mary, smokes cigarettes, speaks in other voices, inhabits alternate personas . . . and, unbeknownst to her older siblings, moves around the inanimate residents of Botch Town. But ensuing events add a shadowy cast to the boys' night games: disappearances, deaths, and spectral sightings capped off by the arrival of a sinister man in a long white car trawling the neighborhood after dark. Strangest of all is the inescapable fact that every one of these troubling occurrences seems to correspond directly to the changes little Mary has made to the miniature town in the basement.

Not since Ray Bradbury's classic Dandelion Wine has a novel so richly evoked the dark magic of small-town boyhood. At once a hypnotically compelling mystery, a masterful re-creation of a unique time and place, a celebration of youth, and a poignant and disquieting portrait of home and family—all balancing on a razor's edge separating reality from the unsettlingly remarkable—The Shadow Year is a monumental new work from one of contemporary fiction's most fearless and inventive artists.

Oct 13, 2009

About the author

Jeffrey Ford is the author of the novels Vanitas, The Physiognomy, Memoranda, The Beyond, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Girl in the Glass, The Cosmology of the Wider World, and The Shadow Year. His story collections are The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, The Empire of Ice Cream, The Drowned Life, and Crackpot Palace. Ford has published over one hundred short stories, which have appeared in numerous journals, magazines, and anthologies, from the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. He is the recipient of the World Fantasy Award, the Nebula Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Edgar Award, France’s Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, and Japan’s Hayakawa’s SF Magazine Reader’s Award.   Ford’s fiction has been translated into twenty languages. In addition to writing, he has been a professor of literature and writing for thirty years and has been a guest lecturer at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, the Stone Coast MFA in Creative Writing Program, Richard Hugo House in Seattle, and the Antioch Writers’ Workshop. Ford lives in Ohio and currently teaches at Ohio Wesleyan University.

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Top quotes

  • I saw a figure, like a human shadow, leaning over Aunt Laura’s bed in the otherwise empty room at St. Anselm’s and lifting her up. He held her to him, enveloping her in his darkness and then, like a bubble of ink bursting, vanished.

  • Instead of writing about the footprint or Mrs. Conrad’s scream, I planned to fill the notebook with the lives of my neighbors, creating a Botch Town of my own between two covers.

  • In minutes the tide turned, the sun suddenly a distant star, and in rolled a dim gray wave of neither here nor there that seemed to last a week each day.

  • The wind of this in-between time always made me want to curl up inside a memory and sleep with eyes open.

  • From that ugly marble came a wonderful sweetness.

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The Shadow Year - Jeffrey Ford


The Eyes

It began in the last days of August, when the leaves of the elm in the front yard had curled into crisp brown tubes and fallen away to litter the lawn. I sat at the curb that afternoon, waiting for Mister Softee to round the bend at the top of Willow Avenue, listening carefully for that mournful knell, each measured ding both a promise of ice cream and a pinprick of remorse. Taking a cast-off leaf into each hand, I made double fists. When I opened my fingers, brown crumbs fell and scattered on the road at my feet. Had I been waiting for the arrival of that strange changeling year, I might have understood the sifting debris to be symbolic of the end of something. Instead I waited for the eyes.

That morning I’d left under a blue sky, walked through the woods and crossed the railroad tracks away from town, where the third rail hummed, lying in wait, like a snake, for an errant ankle. Then along the road by the factory, back behind the grocery, and up and down the streets, I searched for discarded glass bottles in every open garbage can, Dumpster, forgotten corner. I’d found three soda bottles and a half-gallon milk bottle. At the grocery store, I turned them in for the refund and walked away with a quarter.

All summer long, Mister Softee had this contest going. With each purchase of twenty-five cents or more, he gave you a card: On the front was a small portrait of the waffle-faced cream being pictured on the side of the truck. On the back was a piece of a puzzle that when joined with seven other cards made the same exact image of the beckoning soft one, but eight times bigger. I had the blue lapels and red bow tie, the sugar-cone-flesh lips parted in a pure white smile, the exposed towering brain of vanilla, cream-kissed at the top into a pointed swirl, but I didn’t have the eyes.

A complete puzzle won you the Special Softee, like Coney Island in a plastic dish—four twirled Softee-loads of cream, chocolate sauce, butterscotch, marshmallow goo, nuts, party-colored sprinkles, raisins, M&M’s, shredded coconut, bananas, all topped with a cherry. You couldn’t purchase the Special Softee—you had to win it, or so said Mel, who through the years had come to be known simply as Softee.

Occasionally Mel would try to be pleasant, but I think the paper canoe of a hat he wore every day soured him. He also wore a blue bow tie, a white shirt, and white pants. His face was long and crooked, and at times, when the orders came too fast and the kids didn’t have the right change, the bottom half of his face would slowly melt—a sundae abandoned at the curb. His long ears sprouted tufts of hair as if his skull contained a hedge of it, and the lenses of his glasses had internal flaws like diamonds. In a voice that came straight from his freezer, he called my sister, Mary, and all the other girls sweetheart.

Earlier in the season, one late afternoon, my brother, Jim, said to me, You want to see where Softee lives? We took our bikes. He led me way up Hammond Lane, past the shoe store and the junior high school, up beyond Our Lady of Lourdes. After a half hour of riding, he stopped in front of a small house. As I pulled up, he pointed to the place and said, Look at that dump.

Softee’s truck was parked on a barren plot at the side of the place. I remember ivy and a one-story house, no bigger than a good-size garage. Shingles showed their zebra stripes through fading white. The porch had obviously sustained a meteor shower. There were no lights on inside, and I thought this strange because twilight was mixing in behind the trees.

Is he sitting in there in the dark? I asked my brother.

Jim shrugged as he got back on his bike. He rode in big circles around me twice and then shot off down the street, screaming over his shoulder as loud as he could, Softee sucks! The ride home was through true night, and he knew that without him I would get lost, so he pedaled as hard as he could.

We had forsaken the jingle bells of Bungalow Bar and Good Humor all summer in an attempt to win Softee’s contest. By the end of July, though, each of the kids on the block had at least two near-complete puzzles, but no one had the eyes. I had heard from Tim Sullivan, who lived in the development on the other side of the school field, that the kids over there got fed up one day and rushed the truck, jumped up and swung from the bar that held the rearview mirror, invaded the driver’s compartment, all the while yelling, Give us the eyes! The fuckin’ eyes! When Softee went up front to chase them, Tim’s brother Bill leaped up on the sill of the window through which Softee served his customers, leaned into the inner sanctum, unlatched the freezer, and started tossing Italian ices out to the kids standing at the curb.

Softee lost his glasses in the fray, but the hat held on. He screamed, You little bitches! at them as they played him back and forth from the driver’s area to the serving compartment. In the end, Mel got two big handfuls of cards and tossed them out onto the street. Like flies on dog shit, said Tim. By the time they’d realized there wasn’t a pair of eyes in the bunch, Softee had turned the bell off and was coasting silently around the corner.

I had a theory, though, that day at summer’s end when I sat at the curb, waiting. It was my hope that Softee had been holding out on us until the close of the season, and then, in the final days before school started and he quit his route till spring, some kid was going to have bestowed upon him a pair of eyes. I had faith like I never had at church that something special was going to happen that day to me. It did, but it had nothing to do with ice cream. I sat there at the curb, waiting, until the sun started to go down and my mother called me in for dinner. Softee never came again, but as it turned out, we all got the eyes.

Will There Be Clowns?

My mother was a better painter than she was a cook. I loved her portrait of my father in a suit—the dark red background and the distant expression he wore—but I wasn’t much for her spaghetti with tomato soup.

She stood at the kitchen stove over a big pot of it, glass of cream sherry in one hand, a burning cigarette with a three-quarter-inch ash in the other. When she turned and saw me, she said, Go wash your hands. I headed down the hall toward the bathroom and, out of the corner of my eye, caught sight of that ash falling into the pot. Before I opened the bathroom door, I heard her mutter, Could you possibly…? followed hard by the mud-sucking sounds of her stirring the orange glug.

When I came out of the bathroom, I got the job of mixing the powdered milk and serving each of us kids a glass. At the end of the meal, there would be three full glasses of it sitting on the table. Unfortunately, we still remembered real milk. The mix-up kind tasted like sauerkraut and looked like chalk water with froth on the top. It was there merely for show. As long as no one mentioned that it tasted horrible, my mother never forced us to drink it.

The dining-room walls were lined with grained paneling, the knots of which always showed me screaming faces. Jim sat across the table from me, and Mary sat by my side. My mother sat at the end of the table beneath the open window. Instead of a plate, she had the ashtray and her wine in front of her.

It’s rib-stickin’ good, said Jim, adding a knifeful of margarine to his plate. Once the orange stuff started to cool, it needed constant lubrication.

Shut up and eat, said my mother.

Mary said nothing. I could tell by the way she quietly nodded that she was being Mickey.

Softee never came today, I said.

My brother looked up at me and shook his head in disappointment. He’ll be out there at the curb in a snowdrift, he said to my mother.

She laughed without a sound and swatted the air in his direction. You’ve got to have faith, she said. Life’s one long son of a bitch.

She took a drag on her cigarette and a sip of wine, and Jim and I knew what was coming next.

When things get better, she said, I think we’ll all take a nice vacation.

How about Bermuda? said Jim.

In her wine fog, my mother hesitated an instant, not sure if he was being sarcastic, but he knew how to keep a straight face. That’s what I was thinking, she said. We knew that, because once a week, when she hit just the right level of intoxication, that’s what she was always thinking. It had gotten to the point that when Jim wanted me to do him a favor and I asked how he was going to pay me back, he’d say, Don’t worry, I’ll take you to Bermuda.

She told us about the water, crystal blue, so clear you could look down a hundred yards and see schools of manta rays flapping their wings. She told us about the pure white beaches with palm trees swaying in the soft breeze filled with the scent of wildflowers. We’d sleep in hammocks on the beach. We’d eat pineapples we cut open with a machete. Swim in lagoons. Washed up on the shore, amid the chambered nautilus, the sand dollars, the shark teeth, would be pieces of eight from galleons wrecked long ago.

That night, as usual, she told it all, and she told it in minute detail, so that even Jim sat there listening with his eyes half closed and his mouth half open.

Will there be clowns? asked Mary in her Mickey voice.

Sure, said my mother.

How many? asked Mary.

Eight, said my mother.

Mary nodded in approval and returned to being Mickey.

When we got back from Bermuda, it was time to do the dishes. From the leftovers in the pot, my mother heaped a plate with spaghetti for my father to eat when he got home from work. She wrapped it in waxed paper and put it in the center of the stove where the pilot light would keep it warm. Whatever was left over went to George the dog. My mother washed the dishes, smoking and drinking the entire time. Jim dried, I put the plates and silverware away, and Mary counted everything a few dozen times.

Five years earlier the garage of our house had been converted into an apartment. My grandparents, Nan and Pop, lived in there. A door separated our house from their rooms. We knocked, and Nan called for us to come in.

Pop took out his mandolin and played us a few songs: Apple Blossom Time, Show Me the Way to Go Home, Goodnight, Irene. All the while he played, Nan chopped cabbage on a flat wooden board with a one-handed guillotine. My mother rocked in the rocking chair and drank and sang. The trilling of the double-stringed instrument accompanied by my mother’s voice was beautiful to me.

Over at the little table in the kitchenette area, Mary sat with the Laredo machine, making cigarettes. My parents didn’t buy their smokes by the pack. Instead they had this machine that you loaded with a piece of paper and a wad of loose tobacco from a can. Once it was all set up, there was a little lever you pulled forward and back, and presto. It wasn’t an easy operation. You had to use just the right amount to get the cigarettes firm enough so the tobacco didn’t fall out the end.

When my parents had first gotten the Laredo, Mary watched them work it. She was immediately expert at measuring out the brown shag, sprinkling it over the crisp white paper, pulling the lever. Soon she took over as chief roller. She was a cigarette factory once she got going; Pop called her R. J. Reynolds. He didn’t smoke them, though. He smoked Lucky Strikes, and he drank Old Grand-Dad, which seemed fitting.

Jim and I, we watched the television with the sound turned down. Dick Van Dyke mugged and rubber-legged and did pratfalls in black and white, perfectly synchronized to the strains of Shanty Town and I’ll Be Seeing You. Even if Pop and my mother weren’t playing music, we wouldn’t have been able to have the sound up, since Pop hated Dick Van Dyke more than any other man alive.

The Shadow Year

My room was dark, and though it had been warm all day, a cool end-of-summer breeze now filtered in through the screen of the open window. Moonlight also came in, making a patch on the bare, painted floor. From outside I could hear the chug of the Farleys’ little pool filter next door and, beneath that, the sound of George’s claws, tapping across the kitchen linoleum downstairs.

Jim was asleep in his room across the hall. Below us Mary was also asleep, no doubt whispering the times tables into her pillow. I could picture my mother, in the room next to Mary’s, lying in bed, the reading light on, her mouth open, her eyes closed, and the thick red volume of Sherlock Holmes stories with the silhouette cameo of the detective on the spine open and resting on her chest. All I could picture of Nan and Pop was a darkened room and the tiny glowing bottle of Lourdes water in the shape of the Virgin that sat on the dresser.

I was thinking about the book I had been reading before turning out the light—another in the series of adventures of Perno Shell. This one was about a deluge, like Noah’s flood, and how the old wooden apartment building Shell lived in had broken away from its foundation and he and all the other tenants were sailing the giant ocean of the world, having adventures.

There was a mystery about the Shell books, because they were all published under different authors’ names, sometimes by different publishing companies, but you only had to read a few pages to tell that they were all written by the same person. The problem was finding them in the stacks, because the books were shelved alphabetically, according to the authors’ last names. I would never have discovered them if it wasn’t for Mary.

Occasionally I would read to her, snatches from whatever book I was working through. We’d sit in the corner of the backyard by the fence, in a bower made by forsythia bushes. One day, amid the yellow flowers, I read to her from the Shell book I had just taken out: The Stars Above by Mary Holden. There were illustrations in it, one per chapter. When I was done reading, I handed the book to her so she could look at the pictures. While paging through it, she held it up to her face, sniffed it, and said, Pipe smoke. Back then my father smoked a pipe once in a while, so we knew the aroma. I took the book from her and smelled it up close, and she was right, but it wasn’t the kind of tobacco my father smoked. It had a darker, older smell, like a cross between a horse and a mildewed wool blanket.

When I walked to the library downtown, Mary would walk with me. She rarely said a word during the entire trip, but a few weeks after I had returned The Stars Above, she came up to me while I was searching through the four big stacks that lay in the twilight zone between the adult and children’s sections. She tugged at my shirt, and when I turned around, she handed me a book: The Enormous Igloo by Duncan Main.

Pipe smoke, she said.

Opening the volume to the first page, I read, ‘Perno Shell was afraid of heights and could not for the world remember why he had agreed to a journey in the Zeppelin that now hovered above his head.’ Another Perno Shell novel by someone completely different. I lifted the book, smelled the pages, and nodded.

Tonight I wanted Perno Shell to stay in my imagination until I dozed off, but my thoughts of him soon grew as thin as paper, and then the theme of my wakeful nights alone in the dark, namely death, came clawing through. Teddy Dunden, a boy who’d lived up the block, two years younger than me and two years older than Mary, had been struck by a car on Montauk Highway one night in late spring. The driver was drunk and swerved onto the sidewalk. According to his brother, Teddy was thrown thirty feet in the air. I always tried to picture that: twice again the height of the basketball hoop. We had to go to his wake. The priest said he was at peace, but he didn’t look it. As he lay in the coffin, his skin was yellow, his face was bloated, and his mouth was turned down in a bitter frown.

All summer long he came back to me from where he lay under the ground. I imagined him suddenly waking up, clawing at the lid as in a story Jim had once told me. I dreaded meeting his ghost on the street at night when I walked George around the block alone. I’d stop under a streetlight and listen hard, fear would build in my chest until I shivered, and then I’d bolt for home. In the lonely backyard at sundown, in the darkened woods behind the school field, in the corner of my night room, Teddy Dunden was waiting, jealous and angry.

George came up the stairs, nudged open my bedroom door, and stood beside my bed. He looked at me with his bearded face and then jumped aboard. He was a small, schnauzer-type mutt, but fearless, and having him there made me less scared. Slowly I began to doze. I had a memory of riding waves at Fire Island, and it blurred at the edges, slipping into a dream. Next thing I knew, I was falling from a great height and woke to hear my father coming in from work. The front door quietly closed. I could hear him moving around in the kitchen. George got up and left.

I contemplated going down to say hello. The last I’d seen him was the previous weekend. The bills forced him to work three jobs: a part-time machining job in the early morning, then his regular job as a gear cutter, and then nights part-time as a janitor in a department store. He left the house before the sun came up every morning and didn’t return until very near midnight. Through the week I would smell a hint of machine oil here and there, on the cushions of the couch, on a towel in the bathroom, as if he were a ghost leaving vague traces of his presence.

Eventually the sounds of the refrigerator opening and closing and the water running stopped, and I realized he must be sitting in the dining room, eating his pile of spaghetti, reading the newspaper by the light that shone in from the kitchen. I heard the big pages turn, the fork against the plate, a match being struck, and that’s when it happened. There came from outside the house the shrill scream of a woman, so loud it tore the night open wide enough for the Shadow Year to slip out. I shivered, closed my eyes tight, and burrowed deep beneath the covers.

A Prowler

When I came downstairs the next morning, the door to Nan and Pop’s was open. I stuck my head in and saw Mary sitting at the table in the kitchenette where the night before she had made cigarettes. She was eating a bowl of Cheerios. Pop sat in his usual seat next to her, the horse paper spread out in front of him. He was jotting down numbers with a pencil in the margins, murmuring a steady stream of bloodlines, jockeys’ names, weights, speeds, track conditions, ciphering what he called the McGinn System, named after himself. Mary nodded with each new factor added to the equation.

My mother came out of the bathroom down the hall in our house, and I turned around. She was dressed for work in her turquoise outfit with the big star-shaped pin that was like a stained-glass window. I went to her, and she put her arm around me, enveloped me in a cloud of perfume that smelled as thick as powder, and kissed my head. We went into the kitchen, and she made me a bowl of cereal with the mix-up milk, which wasn’t as bad that way, because we were allowed to put sugar on it. I sat down in the dining room, and she joined me, carrying a cup of coffee. The sunlight poured in the window behind her. She lit a cigarette and dragged the ashtray close to her.

Friday, last day of vacation, she said. You better make it a good one. Monday is back to school.

I nodded.

Watch out for strangers, she said. I got a call from next door this morning. Mrs. Conrad said that there was a prowler at her window last night. She was changing into her nightgown, and she turned and saw a face at the glass.

Did she scream? I asked.

She said it scared the crap out of her. Jake was downstairs watching TV. He jumped up and ran outside, but whoever it was had vanished.

Jim appeared in the living room. Do you think they saw her naked? he asked.

A fitting punishment, she said. And as quickly added, Don’t repeat that.

I heard her scream, I said.

Whoever it was used that old ladder Pop keeps in the backyard. Put it up against the side of the Conrads’ house and climbed up to the second-floor window. So keep your eyes out for creeps wherever you go today.

That means he was in our backyard, said Jim.

My mother took a drag of her cigarette and nodded. I suppose.

Before she left for work, she gave us our list of jobs for the day—walk George, clean our rooms, mow the back lawn. Then she kissed Jim and me and went into Nan and Pop’s to kiss Mary. I watched her car pull out of the driveway. Jim came to stand next to me at the front window.

A prowler, he said, smiling. We better investigate.

A half hour later, Jim and Mary and I, joined by Franky Conrad, sat back amid the forsythias.

Did the prowler see your mother naked? Jim asked Franky.

Franky had a hairdo like Curly from the Three Stooges, and he rubbed his head with his fat, blunt fingers. I think so, he said, wincing.

A fitting punishment, said Jim.

What do you mean? asked Franky.

Think about your mother’s ass, said Jim, laughing.

Franky sat quietly for a second and then said, Yeah, and nodded.

Mary took out a Laredo cigarette and lit it. She always stole one or two when she made them. No one would have guessed. Mary was sneaky in a way, though. Jim would have told on me if I’d smoked one. All he did was say to her, You’ll stay short if you smoke that. She took a drag and said, Could you possibly…? in a flat voice.

Jim, big boss that he was, laid it out for us. I’ll be the detective and you all will be my team. Pointing at me, he said, You have to write everything down. Everything that happens must be recorded. I’ll give you a notebook. Don’t be lazy.

Okay, I said.

Mary, he said, you count shit. And none of that Mickey stuff.

I’m counting now, she said in her Mickey voice, nodding her head.

We cracked up, but she didn’t laugh.

Franky, you’re my right-hand man. You do whatever the hell I tell you.

Franky agreed, and then Jim told us the first thing we needed to do was search for clues.

Did your mother say what the prowler’s face looked like? I asked.

She said it was no one she ever saw before. Like a ghost.

Could be a vampire, I said.

It wasn’t a vampire, Jim said. It was a pervert. If we’re going to do this right, it’s got to be like science. There’s no such things as vampires.

Our first step was to investigate the scene of the crime. Beneath the Conrads’ second-floor bedroom window, on the side of their house next to ours, we found a good footprint. It was big, much larger than any of ours, and it had a design on the bottom of lines and circles.

You see what that is? asked Jim, squatting down and pointing to the design.

It’s from a sneaker, I said.

Yeah, he said.

I think it’s Keds, said Franky.

What does that tell you? asked Jim.

What? asked Franky.

Well, it’s too big to be a kid, but grown-ups usually don’t wear sneakers. It might be a teenager. We better save this for if the cops ever come to investigate.

Did your dad call the cops? I asked.

No. He said that if he ever caught who it was, he’d shoot the son of a bitch himself.

It took us about a half hour to dig up the footprint, carefully loosening the dirt all around it and scooping way down beneath it with the shovel. We went to Nan’s side door and asked her if she had a box. She gave us a round pink hatbox with a lid that had a picture of a poodle and the Eiffel Tower.

Jim told Franky, Carry it like it’s nitro, and we took it into our yard and stored it in the toolshed back by the fence. When Franky slid it into place on the wooden

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What people think about The Shadow Year

35 ratings / 23 Reviews
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  • (4/5)
    A boy growing up in the a small Long Island town in the 1960s discovers that a serial killer is stalking his neighborhood.This is a quirky coming-of-age story with a nostalgic small-town feel and an undercurrent of the sinister, as well as the supernatural. Ford is great with characters, especially the dysfunctional but still affectionate family of the unnamed narrator. The narrator has a hobby of writing little stories about his neighbors, and we get to know them and their eccentricities that way. He and his older brother have also recreated their neighborhood in their basement, a model made out of junk called Botch Town, where their odd younger sister moves the figures in a way that eerily predicts real-life events. The story is a mix of short vignettes about a pivotal year in the boy's life and the ongoing plot of the siblings' efforts to catch Mr. White, a creepy man in a white car who they suspect is murdering people. They have the help of an older neighborhood kid who moved away but mysteriously reappeared. Mixed in are nostalgic stories with a realistic edge: the horrors of middle school; dealing with an alcoholic, depressed mother; the antics of a Halloween night; an exuberant Christmas party; rambling through the nearby woods. There is an epilogue that feels tacked on and probably wasn't necessary, but otherwise this is a little gem of a book.
  • (5/5)
    This was an absolutely gorgeous read! I loved every word in this book. It captured the time period superbly, the characters were great, the plot was paced perfectly and the whole thing was subtle and smokey.
  • (4/5)
    "The Shadow Year" begins and ends with Mr. Softee, the ice-cream man. At the beginning of the story our narrator, and main character, is “listening carefully for that mournful knell, each measured ding both a promise of ice cream and a pinprick of remorse.”

    Our narrator describes a family learning to cope with a new financial reality. Their father lost his old job and was now working three jobs, while their mother worked one job, to pay the bills that still kept on coming in. Even though their father is not present in much of the book, Jeffrey Ford still manages to show a man who loves his family passionately and whose family loves him back. But because of his need to work so much, we also see children who view their father as a distant figure.

    Their mother is clearly depressed and self-medicates with alcohol and The Complete Sherlock Holmes. She seems to be manic depressive, and we get to watch her come down from one of her manic episodes.

    "In those few seconds, I saw the recent burst of energy leaking out of her. As usual, it had lasted for little more than a week or so, and she’d used it all up. Like a punctured blow-up pool toy, she seemed to slowly deflate while shadows blossomed in her gaze."

    Childhood is such a passionate time. If you have ever seen a three-year old express anger, joy, sadness or love, you know what a I mean. Everything is new and everything is normal. An adult might see a child’s circumstances as horrible, but that child knows of nothing else. As they grow and learn to compare, some of their passion is sloughed off.

    There are three children in our main character’s family: Jim (seventh grade), narrator (sixth grade) and Mary (fourth grade/Room X). All three seem to be pretty smart with Mary as the probable winner. Her placement in a special class is due to the inability of her teachers to get an answer from her. All three are authority adverse. There is an hilarious episode regarding Jim’s personality/IQ test. All three get this self-confidence from their mother, who allows them quite a bit of leeway when it comes to school.

    I found myself loving this family. Perhaps Mary in particular (although I probably identified most with the narrator). Mary is a child who follows her own paths. Her friends, Sally O’Malley and Sandy Graham, lived in a closet in her room and sometimes they go to school with Mary in the family basement where they are taught by their teacher, Mrs. Harkmar (all three make-believe). Mary also sports an alter-ego, Mickey. Her math abilities are pretty astounding and all learned while listening to Pop working out his horse races. Those abilities are used to identify the mystery behind the disappearance of Charlie Edison.

    Poor little Charlie Edison. Lost in the battleground of Elementary (Primary) school. He is first on the list of who Bobby Harweed (bully and coward) beats up. Charlie is, sadly, also on the bully-list of some of the teachers. He does his best to stay invisible. Then one day he truly becomes invisible by disappearing for good. Our three siblings begin looking and use Botch Town as their aid.

    Botch Town is Jim’s creation. It is a model of their neighborhood made from little bits and pieces Jim has picked up and glued together. Mary seems to have super-natural powers in predicting where people will be and what might happen. One of those predictions is regarding their neighborhood’s recent prowler.

    Then we have the ghosts.

    I loved Jeffrey Ford’s writing. Definitely recommended.

  • (4/5)
    “Her small stature, dark, and wrinkled complexion, and the silken black strands at the corners of her upper lip made her seem to me at times like some ancient monkey king. When she’d fart while standing, she’d kick her left leg up in the back and say: ‘Shoot him in the pants. The Coat and vest are mine.’”In “The Shadow Years” by Jeffrey FordThe world-wide craze for superheroes is obvious. We all see ourselves as passive victims and don't expect to rescue ourselves.There's also the national craze for vampires and zombies in books, TV, movies, and the web. It may seem odd that a deeply Christian country is also obsessed with vampires, but as Joseph Glanvill wrote in the 1600s, if you deny the existence of demons and witches, you deny god. I see it as another form of projection: a few survivors are surrounded by the dead, i.e., the masses of the unemployed and soon-to-be-unemployable. I’m thinking USA here.Magical realism is a bit like SF, where colorful, fanciful personas, places and technologies are used to explore all too real attitudes, trends and prejudices. It could be said that Ford's take on it is America's second exploration of the genre, since it was also prevalent in the 50's and 60's (and to some extent the 70's) with the proliferation of pulp magazines, SF publications (also the birth of the modern comic book) and SF movies and TV shows (Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, Star Trek). This post war boom was a symptom of America's unease with the new reality of The Bomb, Detente, the Cold War and the Red Menace.It’s no coincidence that the resurgence of these Magical Realism genres occur at this time, when Americans again feel the ground shifting beneath their feet. American culture has always been hugely imaginative (it's not unique in that, of course) and I see no reason whatsoever why magic realism should be linked to a perceived decline in power.Unfortunately, many English speakers don't seem to get the fact that magical realism started elsewhere a long time ago: Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Gogol, Bulgakov, Garcia Marquez -- one could go on and on. It's these writers who captured the absurdity of so-called reality and the truths revealed by the so-called magic. Ford, in my mind, is the best American representative of this kind of fiction.Bottom-Line:1. Reality and fantasy today have changed places. Was the current Presidential election campaign reality, or fantasy? I'd argue that the campaign and our contemporary dilemmas (watching our "leaders" fiddle while Rome burns) is the latter. So it follows that “The Shadow Years” is addressing reality in the oblique, imaginative way that great art does;2. Using the imagination is hardly a retreat. It's essential. It's our materialist, fact-centred world, suspicious of everything intangible, that is in full-blown retreat from true imaginative art (as opposed to the manipulative products of Hollywood). The American writer Kathleen Norris brilliantly examines what she calls Americans' fear of metaphor -- hence the rise of fundamentalist, literalist religion.Ford is most of the time literary and beautiful, but this novel bummed me out. Downbeat and offbeat. Unfortunately I am not in the right phase of my life to love this stuff; but it does not prevent me from seeing what Ford was able to do.Nevertheless, bring on more Beasts, please!
  • (5/5)
    Great book. Seamless writing. Great narrative voice. Interesting characters. A few LOL moments (which are extremely rare for me). I couldn't put it down. World Fantasy Award winner but should appeal to mainstream readers as well.
  • (4/5)
    GoodI was drawn in by the premise – in the 1960’s a young boy, Jim, awaits 6th grade in a household with an alcoholic mother and a father he rarely sees, an older brother and a younger sister, Mary, who inhabits her own secret world. The boys have created a detailed model of the town, called Botch Town, complete with clay figures. When one night a prowler is spotted the children appoint themselves to investigate and when they discover that when Mary moves around the inhabitants of Botch town this is somehow corresponds to what happens in real life. When a mystery man turns up in a long white car and there are mysterious disappearances the boy’s life gets complicated. We follow Jim through school and his often difficult relationship with his teacher and peers in a semi-typical coming of age style story but with the events of the mysterious evenings, sneaking out to investigate, adding much more interest.This reminded mostly of wait until spring Bandini with added weird supernaturalness. It is well written but seemed to me to lack something, it’s hard to put my finger on it just felt “light” and not totally satisfying. I enjoyed it and would recommend it but I just felt that more could have been done with it, the premise is cooler than the reality I guess.Overall – The premise sounded much cooler than the book turned out to be, still a good read though
  • (4/5)
    Shadow Year is set in the 1960s, in a small town on Long Island. It's a coming of age story, a quasi-mystery story, with a bit of speculative fiction all thrown in together. I've seen this book compared with Stephen King's writing, and yes, perhaps to a wee bit, I can see why. Here, though, we're introduced to a rather sad and dysfunctional family. The main character of the novel is a 6th grade boy who lives with his older brother Jim, a younger sister Mary, and a set of parents who have some serious problems. Mom is an alcoholic and lives in a quasi stupor most of the time, while Dad works three jobs to make ends meet. The children's grandparents live in an apartment attached to the house. The sixth grader is the narrator of the story (we're not given his name), and through his eyes events of a particular year unravel themselves. While Mary runs numbers in her head and plays with imaginary friends to help cope, the boys have their own space in the cellar below the stairs: Botch Town, where the town they live in has been faithfully recreated out of clay and what ever other materials are handy. The boys often go down and recreate events happening throughout the town using the clay figures they've created.As the story gets rolling, strange occurrences begin to take place. A prowler is looking in through windows throughout the neighborhood. Jim decides that the boys will take on the case and while they're working on that, a boy from the narrator's school disappears. Even worse, the boys come across a man dressed all in white (known as Mr. White) driving a white car with bubble top and fins, who starts watching them. But as these events happen, the boys realize that Mary's a step ahead of them and has recreated them in Botch Town.The reader is drawn in from the very beginning and stays there throughout the novel. You want to know what happens not just in the sense of these strange events, but to the family as well, because you genuinely care about all of these characters. Plus, Ford has this incredible way of evoking a vivid sense of nostalgia; my guess would be especially from people who grew up during the 60s. There's a reality to the atmosphere he creates that keeps you reading more. There are parts that are downright laugh out loud funny, while the family situation and other, more grief-laden scenes keep it real. And although the final payoff may not be as worthy as the tension that grips you up to that point, it's still a strangely satisfying ending.Definitely recommended.
  • (4/5)
    Boy on Long Island? has a younger clairvoyant sister. Based on cardboard model of small town in basement, sister keeps track of coming/goings of locals by positioning representative items. Brother solves murder mystery (based on sister's input) while coming of age. (read a year ago).
  • (5/5)
    In THE SHADOW YEAR we follow an unnamed narrator, his older brother Jim, and their younger sister Mary through the events of one Summer during the 1960s. A prowler has appeared on their street, causing consternation for the adults, but excitement for the narrator and his siblings as they finally are able to fill their Summer with something: they are going to discover the identity of the prowler. At the same time, the chilcren take note of a mysterious white car driving quietly around their neighborhood late at night.The boys build a model of their home town in the basement, which they dub Botchtown. The narrator begins constructing stories about Botchtown's inhabitants, Jim adds more details to the people and homes in the model, and Mary... Mary moves the pieces around when the boys aren't around. It doesn't seem random; after she correctly predicts the future location of the prowler and white car, the boys actively want her to help.As with any Ford piece, the prose is lucid and easy. Even the most complicated topics sound simple coming off Ford's pen. And there's a depth to his writing that is practically unparalleled. While the story moves along and the boys try to uncover the identity of the prowler and the driver of the white car, Ford paints an uneasy family portrait: the boys' father is working several jobs and the family is barely scraping by; the mother drinks herself to sleep most nights; the grandparents live above the garage in an apartment; and the boys have to deal with bullies and pranks at school. As a reader, you're torn between wanting to learn more about the family and wanting to solve the mystery. In a lesser writer's hands, this would be distracting, but for Ford, it just flows naturally.And everything is told through the eyes of a nine- or ten-year-old boy's eyes. You never forget that it's his voice that's telling the story. So you have his sense of wonder when seeing things for the first time, his terror at events that are mundane to adults, and his unquestioning belief in the strength of his own family. He knows things aren't right, but he loves it all the same.The only potential drawback the book had for me was that I felt the ending sort of just happened. It felt, open-ended, almost unresolved. However, I look at it as a reflection on real life. Real life doesn't tie itself up neatly; real life has all sorts of things happening and nothing comes to a solid conclusion.This isn't a book you read for the ending, this is a book you read for the journey.
  • (5/5)
    Jeffrey Ford's The Shadow Year is a well-written less fantastical book than the rest of his bibliography.I swear I've read part of this book before, presumably in a short-story collection, but the feeling of half-remembering the story only enhanced the dreamlike quality of the book. The narrator is a young boy, and the events are told from his perspective, making him at once an unreliable narrator and a narrator more reliable than most adults: while a child may not be able to sharply delineate between events that really happened and things that only happened in his head, this can only be a benefit when the things that are really happening involve ghosts and play-towns that are inexplicably linked to the real thing.If you've enjoyed Jeffrey Ford's previous offerings, this book will not disappoint, and if you've not yet had the pleasure, this will be a good starting place. Highly recommended.
  • (4/5)
    An engaging, well-written fast read. However, I did expect it to be darker or more suspenseful, based on the blurb in the Early Reviewer's listing - that being said, I did enjoy this book, for me it is reminiscent of some of Stephen King's first person stories, in that they seem to fully grasp the time and life of the first person character. If you are looking to read a dark suspense novel about a summer plagued with murder this is not it. The characters make the story, not vice versa.
  • (4/5)
    What a fun, enjoyable read! Reminiscent, but more subtle than, King's THE BODY and Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. I've been a big fan of Ford's works for years now, and that while SHADOW YEAR felt like a bit of a departure in subject and tone compared to his previous efforts, his muse and talents did not fail him. It was a great, memorable weekend read. Several portions had me laughing hysterically (the Trick-or-Treating segment) or wistful (the dash through the neighborhood peeking briefly into people's windows and lives had such an uncurrent of beauty) or slightly creeped out (I won't look quite the same at a white car with fins at a car show for quite some time) clear through to an ending that was, for me, perfection.Well worth the money spent and the time. Here's a book you could easily pass around the family/friend book circle we all have.
  • (4/5)
    The Shadow Year, by Jeffrey Ford, combines a 1960’s coming-of-age story with elements of mystery and the paranormal. Our narrator is entering the 6th grade and, along with his 13 year old brother Jim and 10 year old sister Mary, discovers a mystery happening right in their Long Island neighborhood. A prowler has been spotted and heard sneaking around the yards of the suburban homes. The kids take it upon themselves to investigate. Complicating matters is the disappearance of a classmate of the narrator. Is the prowler a kidnapper? A murderer? With a predominantly absent father – he works three jobs, so the kids barely see him – and an alcoholic mother who dreams aloud of Bermuda as she slips into her boozy haze most evenings, the kids have the run of the town. To give any more away would be a disservice. The action picks up and leads to several frightening scenes.Reminiscent of Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, the book succeeds in capturing that magical age of boys, just before junior high, where childhood beliefs compete with teenaged hormones and know-it-all-ness. A cynic might wonder why the boys just don’t go to the police with their findings and suspicions. That cynic will have forgotten his own early adolescence – how many 12 year olds would love to have a mystery to investigate? How many would rather go to the cops?The book has some structural weaknesses, especially the jarring brevity of some chapters which condense the timeline. I feel that the story could have been expanded and would like to have read further detail about Mom and Dad, who are the weakest characters, almost stock characters. The most fascinating character is Mary, the younger sister, who seems to have a form of autism in that she is always counting, verbalizing a bewildering string of numbers. This leads to her precognitive abilities to determine where certain townspeople will be at any given time. She would make an interesting subject in her own book.
  • (4/5)
    The rhythm doesn't come until the second half, before that I wanted to be more drawn into the story but just wasn't. The narrator's voice captures perfectly a Long Island sixth grade boy exploring his neighborhood with a surefooted older brother and sweetly spooky younger sister who might be either "really smart or really simple." There is a sense of the supernatural woven throughout could have been more strongly evoked as the kids try to figure out who the neighborhood prowler is and whether he is connected to other strange occurrences. Mary, the younger sister, seems to know, preternaturally, the prowler's whereabouts. I enjoyed reading this story, especially as the pace picked up, but I would have enjoyed it more if some of the characters were painted more indelibly; there are many names sprinkled throughout the book and I would have appreciated more continuity among the ones who turn up more than once.
  • (5/5)
    The Shadow Year chronicles a year in the life of a sixth grader who narrates and remains unnamed. Like all of the other details that are spot-on, Ford gets right that for kids a year begins with the start of school and ends the following summer.This book nails the details of the narrator's life. It describes that coming-of-age period when we realize that some people hurt little kids and that sometimes our parents aren't doing as good of a job as they should. The characters in this book feel like real people and do the things that real people do.The book has a supernatural element as well with the narrator's sister, Mary, using a miniature version of their town and its inhabitants to predict events with some reliability. In many ways, the supernatural part of the plot was secondary to the plot of a child's life in a family with problems. There is a scene where the boys purposely encourage their alcoholic mother to drink so they can sneak out of the house that feels so devastatingly real it is almost unbearable to fathom.In the end, the most important thing about the book is that Jeffrey Ford can really write. Each description is a pleasure to read.
  • (4/5)
    Reviewer's copy won on LibraryThing. Must. Ignore. Typos. (That's the hardest thing about reading ARCs--putting aside my job training).It's a strange year for our narrator (his name is never given). It's some time in the 60s, I'm guessing, and the weirdness starts when a peeping tom is spotted across the street. He's immediately added to older brother Jim's model of the neighborhood, Botch Town. The brothers notice the prowler being moved in Botch Town, then showing up in those places in their neighborhood. Turns out their sister Mary can figure out where he's going to be. Then a boy from the neighborhood disappears and Mary can figure out where he is. But things start getting strange when this odd white car keeps showing up. First only the narrator seems to notice it, but then all three kids do, and the car too ends up with a model in Botch Town.But who is this Mr. White? Is he as sinister as the kids make him out to be? And around this goes on the business of daily living.I liked the surreality of Mr. White and how he seemed so invisible to most of the town. I did, however, want more of an explanation for Mary. One review said the climax petered out, but I think that was the intent--I don't see how a big breathless climax would have worked with this book. It was a strange, surreal year in an otherwise "normal" childhood.
  • (4/5)
    This was an intense novel. It really and truly was, and it is elegantly written and well-done. Our narrator is a nameless sixth grader, the middle of three children in a family struggling to get by. This is very much the year he comes of age, where he awakens to the world. Its a story of families and siblings. Its a story where our narrator sees that the world loses it's soft edges and where a boy discovers that safety is an illusion and that everything has teeth. That is WHY its so intense, because it is all too real how the narrator discovers child molestation, death, sex, and the myths that childhood is grounded in. Though your own experiences may not be as intense or similar, we all remember when we started to figure out that our parents can't protect from us everything, that sometimes parents need protecting, and that the world isn't safe. It captures the fears and doubts of that age perfectly.Its set in the lush background of the sixties, in a land without pop culture permeating everything. And in this world where horrors are not quite yet real, it is totally believable when the author weasels in hints of the supernatural. It makes the book more unsettling and increases the intensity. I didn't feel the need to question the paranormal elements, and our narrator feels much the same, because magic is easier to believe when you're young.The writing is strong, very visual. There are only a few stutters, the biggest flaw being the author's assumption that you can totally remember the names of characters mentioned fleetingly one hundred pages ago (especially since so many names sound alike; almost everyone's last name starts with an "H"!). But this is a small flaw, and the only one that really niggled at me. Still, you may need to build your own "Botch Town" to keep track of who's who!I didn't expect to like this book, the first few pages were a little difficult for me. But I found myself engrossed and unable to put it down halfway through - it was so easy to slip into this world and accept it unquestioningly. I recommend it very strongly for those that like books like "The Lovely Bones" and who enjoy straight fiction. It may not be as life-altering as that work, but it has a similar feel to it, and it is really thoroughly enjoyable.
  • (3/5)
    The novel flows very well, and despite its 300 pages is an easy one day read with short chapters and better than average prose. It describes growing up in the suburbs in the early 1960s in an evocative way, and I liked the idea of the Perno Shell books. The elements are all there for a wonderful novel, but the execution is somehow flawed, and the book seems rushed, especially the climax.The supernatural elements are not only largely incidental to the main plot, but seem to be incomplete, and too numerous and discordant to be thought of as occurring in real life. I love magical realism, but it needs to be written in such a way that you unquestionably accept the supernatural elements of the story, and I think the key to reader acceptance is to choose a single supernatural concept and frame it in such a way as to make the reader believe that it could exist in the real world and not be noticed outside of the experience being related. In this book, Ford introduces three separate and unrelated magical elements... it is too much to accept. The elements related to Botch Town, being the only ones necessary to drive the plot and the most interesting of the supernatural elements, should have been developed more thoroughly and the other two removed.With the first person narrator as a sixth-grader, it is hard to determine whether perceived flaws in the novel are an intentional product of the narrator's voice or a lacking in the author. Since Ford has won the Edgar, Nebula, and various other important awards, I am going to assume that the problems with the book are rooted in intentional, but unfortunate, choices the author made.
  • (3/5)
    This book has an engaging plot, but it is very dark. The narrator's world is one of stalkers, bullies, child molestors, kidnappers, and an alcoholic mother. Once the story got going, I was involved in the characters and curious about questions raised by the narrator and the plot, but the ending felt rushed. It pulled me out of the story, and almost felt false. It didn't bring the closure for which it was reaching.
  • (4/5)
    Jeffrey Ford's new novel The Shadow Year is an expanded version of his novella "Botch Town" (from his collection The Empire of Ice Cream), a nostalgic tale narrated by a sixth-grade boy attempting to deal with not only the changes in his own life, but also those in his immediate Long Island neighborhood - including a prowler and a serial killer.Readers of Ford's short fiction will find fewer speculative elements here, but threads of weird creepiness run throughout the book, especially in the form of the narrator's little sister who displays precognitive abilities. Strong elements of mystery and horror are also prominent as the narrator (along with his older brother Jim and sister Mary) tries to solve the mysteries of the prowler and the serial killer. Are they related? Are they the same person? Yet it's the normal, day-to-day routine elements of The Shadow Year that give the book strength. Ford expertly captures the fun, adventure, confusion, sadness, joy, and fear that are all a part of youth.
  • (4/5)
    Admirably well-written - Ford is rising to the top of the genre - but creepier than my taste.
  • (4/5)
    An opulent mix of gothic horror, mystery, ghost story, and realism, all in one engaging package. Initially (since I have never read Ford before and hadn't read the back blurb thoroughly), I thought this would be a purely semi-biographical tale of the writer's childhood experiences, family, and friends, because his details and descriptions are so en pointe (the screaming "faces" in the wood paneling, the way the oxygen disappears from the room when the drunken mother rages against life, etc.). Then, when the magic starts, the realistic canvas of this world makes the supernatural events all the more poignant.The story is a little meandering, with loads of anecdotes and stories that don't really belong in the straightforward plot, and normally I would feel like the "extras" would be a waste of time, but here I feel like they add to the overall plush carpet. I want to know more about all the (slightly grotesque...) characters and I find that the mystery part isn't the most important for me.One thing that really struck me is the imagery. For example, an image of someone, when dead, looking like they "swallowed [their] tongue the wrong way." It's not a new image, but the twist is what caught me - how horrid would it be not only to swallow your own tongue, but to get it down the wrong way! Maybe it's just me, but I love little things like that. In fact, it's a writing style like this that'll make me pick up other books by this writer.
  • (4/5)
    Ford has a secure grasp of the darkness of childhood with an addicted parent, along with the ways a child can find brightness in order to live with it. Descriptions are elegant, and the main character is one you can imagine growing into the writer of this tale. A child, looking to create his own world, would very likely get caught up in Botchtown, using his siblings as fodder for his imagination.I found the ending to be a little too cookie-cutter, given the treasured jagged edges of the beginning of the novel. For me, the jagged edges are what allow a story to become real in my mind, what attach themselves to me. The ending lacked this attachment for me. (I cannot say how I would have hoped to rectify this, only that it felt as though Ford ran out of material after a very solid 225 pages.)**Spoiler alert, kind of**Ford gives clues as to the truth about Ray, and I was okay with the paranormal hints regarding the character. If anything, the questions which are presented in passing give strength to the childlike quality of the narrator. There was absolutely no need to solidify the assumptions of the main character with a "years later" epilogue.