Friday, January 27, 2012

Book Review: Sin



"Sin" by Shaun Allan has some interesting ideas in it, such as cursed coins and teleportation. The narrator and main character is Sin Mathews, a strange man that can manipulate the fate of others and punish them for their misdeeds.

Here's the synopsis from Amazon.com:
Dead. Say it enough times and it becomes just a word. Dead. Dead. Dead. What would you do? Could you kill a killer? Does the death of one appease the deaths of a hundred? What about that hundred against a thousand? What if you had no choice? Meet Sin. No, not that sort of sin, but Sin, crazy as a loon (you ask Sister Moon), and proud of it. Sin locks himself away in a mental home and, every so often, gets violent. That's only so they'll give him those nice drugs, though. The ones that help him forget. It's a pity they don't work. Sin, you see, has a serious problem. Well, it's not so much his problem, as ours; yours, mine and everyone else's. People die around him. He doesn't like it and he can't help it. But someone else knows, and he has to stop them... and himself... Flip and catch... 

I really, really wanted to like this book, but I just couldn't. There are snippets of paragraphs that give us a glimpse of the great writer Mr. Allan has the potential to be. But then the narrator, Sin, goes out of his way to turn people off and bore them and that's just sad.

For a novel with the main theme of cause and effect (flip the coin), the plot cannot even manage to adhere to it. There is no logical sequence of events that take us through the course of the narrative. I'm not saying that a plot needs to be perfectly linear, by all means it should be otherwise. What I am saying is that plots should follow the flow of A. something happens to character B. character decides what to do about it and makes a plan of action C. Character implements plan and the results of her actions or decisions becomes the next plot point. Is that so much to ask?


I'm not sure if this is because it's the first novel Shaun Allan ever wrote, or if it was written without an outline (either on paper or in one's head) to keep things on track. Either way, reading "Sin" is like reading "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy.


"Anna Karenina" is a torturous "great classic" that many are forced to read in High School. I was one of the unfortunates that had to suffer the painful experience of reading it. The only good thing was my teacher, bless his soul, let us stop reading after the eponymous character of the title dies, which is (if I remember correctly) roughly 200 pages before the book actually ends. By reading "Anna Karenina" I learned that I hate stream-of-consciousness narratives that are too close to how people think in real time. I also learned the term, "Kicking the dead horse," which refers to someone acting aggressively towards an object that a person no longer has control over. (Give it a rest Vronsky.)

Like "Anna Karenina," "Sin" is written in stream-of-consciousness. Stream-of-consciousness is written in a style that says what the narrator is thinking at any given time, no matter how irrelevant it may be. The narrator, Sin, takes multiple pages to describe something and then never truly gets to the point. And by point, I mean plot point, which is something that "Sin" sorely lacks. To make matters worse, Sin cannot, even if he wanted to, pay attention to what is going on around him. He is so unpredictable that at times he becomes utterly incomprehensible.

Sin's narration tangents do not add to the story about a quirky man with a strange and lethal supernatural gift. They detract from his value as a character, and he goes from being an interesting albeit strange narrator to an utter chore to read. He's like a ferret on a sugar high suffering from an extreme case of ADD.


"Oooh! What's this? Oooh! What's that?" 


Now, Sin Mathews is insane because he causes deadly accidents to occur and he has a bad first name. In addition to that, he inexplicably knows things, like people's names and every bad thing they've ever done in life, which is fine since he has a strange supernatural gift. But are these things real? Is his addled mind making up bad deeds in order to justify killing people?

What kind of mental illness does Sin have? Is he schizophrenic? Manic depressive with manic highs that give him delusions of grandeur, i.e. being the very hand of death? The world may never know. Heck, even his doctor couldn't come up with a written diagnosis in his medical records. Delusional is not a mental illness, but a symptom of many different types of mental illnesses. And the phrase schizophrenic tendencies tells us nothing.

Sin goes out of his way to acknowledge that he is bonkers and constantly revels in the fact that he was locked up in a mental hospital and drugged into oblivion.  His comments go from using sarcasm to cover up the shame of having a social taboo such as a mental illness to an almost a sick sense of pride in being locked up in the nuthouse. I don't have a problem with a character that is messed up in the head and desperately trying to hide it from others. I do have a problem with an incomprehensible narrator constantly spewing out whatever pops into his head, no matter how trivial or mundane it may be. A truly insane or "crazy" person lacks the ability to comprehend that his perception of reality is not what others perceive.

The book reads as though the main character is narrating the story to the reader, which is appropriate for first person narrative. However, in order for Sin to not only be a reliable narrator, but a tolerable one to keep the reader company throughout the 175 pages of the novel, the author needs to seriously tone down his tangents. They interfere with the flow of events and utterly ruin any sort of suspense or feeling of dread that was brilliantly conjured just before Sin's mind leaps off the logic train and makes a rolling stop in the corn field before screeching to a halt.

To sum it up, it's like this:

"What guilt? I don't feel guilty. Sort of. Shut up! Whatever. Oooh, what's that over there? Hey, this reminds me of that one time I watched that movie..blah, blah, blah. Oh yeah, what were we just talking about? Pop rocks! Of course!"

The worst part though, is when characters appear for no good reason and do nothing, such as Joy's ghost, or the farmer and his wife (OK, they gave him breakfast. But they could've been just about anybody really.)

I find that when I'm writing fiction and the character that shows up in the scene has nothing to say, up to the point of screaming that they can't say anything during the dialog, it's the subconscious trying to get through to you and let you know that hey, this scene, it totally doesn't belong here and should be cut out entirely because it's so not working.

If it were me, I'd have had Joy whisper in his ear, just before Sin woke up, so that he and the reader are unsure if she is a ghost, or if he's just hearing things. You know, to build up suspense. Or, drop the Caspar the Friendly Ghost act and have her torment the crap out of him every time she shows up to add to the sense of dread and Sin's utter lunacy.

Instead, we get this interaction between Sin and Joy where even the writing acknowledges that the story is going nowhere. Those parts I'll bold so you can see them, my comments will be in parenthesis and normal type and are not a part of the published text.
Excerpt taken from Page 42 to 45: 


"If only I could tell you the things you need to know," she said. "It would be so much easier. You'd be so much happier." She paused and chewed her bottom lip, a habit I'd grown tired of trying to slap out of her. "Maybe you wouldn't be happier actually, but at least you'd know."


"Know what?" I asked. Things I needed to know? I wasn't appearing on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. I didn't need to phone a friend or ask the audience. Good job really because the only audience I currently had was maybe the odd owl or squirrel. Anyway, what did I need to know that I didn't already? This dream was going the way of a Twin Peaks episode. It was following some twisted path I couldn't see, swinging back on itself and then taking a completely different route. I felt like Kyle MacLachlan was conspiring with David Lynch to hijack my brain and turn it on its end. All we needed was some cherry pie, a damn fine cup of coffee, and we could all sit down, have a picnic and figure out which outcome would be the weirdest and as such the one we'd use. At least Kyle was investigating a murder whereas I was committing them.


I wondered if, in a court of law, murder in absentia was a punishable crime. If I had an alibi tighter than Jacob Marley's business partner, even though I admitted to having done the crime - and thanks to Mental Homes R Us, done the time - would I still be sent down, joining the chain gang on a one way trip along the Green Mile? Maybe I could get Tom Hanks' or Michael Clarke Duncan's autographs.
I doubted a defence of "I wasn't there m'lud" would be sufficient to get me off. But death by proxy. What would be the maximum sentence for that? Six months? Life? Would there be a frying tonight, with old Sparky, the electric chair?


Ask me another.


Death by proxy. That's a phrase and a half, ain't it? Murder by proxy, perhaps - get some other schmucky-duck to do the deed. But death by proxy? How did that work? If it's my time that's up, is DBP (as we affectionately don't call it) giving my extinction ticket to the next customer, like at the deli counter in Asda?


"I'll have half a pound of bullet to the brain and three slices of cardiac arrest please. Oh, hold on, you go first, pal."


"Cheers mate! Make mine a quarter of honey roasted dismemberment please. No, wait. Make it six ounces."


"Certainly sir. We've got a special three-for-two offer on aneurisms this week. Can I tempt you?"


"No thanks, I'm good with the dismemberment."


Death by proxy - giving your place in the queue for Snuffit & Keelover to the next bloke, nice guy that you are.


My sense of dread and guilt, which had been rebounding around the forest like a squash ball shot from a cannon, slammed back into me once more. What if that was exactly the case? What if I was missing my appointment with the Other Side by passing it on to other people?


If I was meant to die the day the number 5 bus drove into the Post Office instead of into me?


If I was meant to die today, the next victim of a teenage idiot more intent on his mobile phone than on the road?


I jumped when I felt Joy's hand on my shoulder.


"Sin?"


"Sorry," I said, shuddering. I suddenly felt cold even though the temperature hadn't dropped noticeably. The closeness of the trees, the canopy of leaves and the blanket of clouds all did their bit to keep the afternoon's warmth from escaping.
And me.


"What is it?" she asked.


I shook my head. What was the point? She'd only tell me I was being stupid. Maybe she was right. Maybe my head was running after David Lynch, hoping to be sucked down the convoluted drain of his imagination.


But still. As ever. What IF?


I so needed to get a grip! What if the world really was flat, with only the 150 foot wall of the Southern Ice between us and an eternal drop into Oblivion? What if the Bermuda Triangle was an extra-terrestrial King's Cross, with trains (or ships and planes) leaving every fifteen minutes or so, stopping at Peterborough, Newark, Doncaster and Alpha Centauri?


What if anyone actually gave a toss?


I took another one of those deep breaths people recommend to steady your nerves. Was there some magic medicine in air? I suppose there was. Oxygen. Daft question really.


"Nothing," I said, managing a half hearted smile. The other half had a go, but couldn't quite manage it. Oh well, a smile is always half full rather than half empty.


I needed to get this dream going, if, indeed, it was going anywhere. For all I knew it could be tomorrow or next week by now. It had been so long since I'd had a sleep that wasn't drug induced, I figured my body could be making up for lost time. Perhaps Joy was here to keep me occupied while my body recuperated. Dreams being what they were though, I could have just dozed off for five minutes. Either way, if there was a point, I wished Joy would get us to it. (Yeah. Me too buddy)


"Are you sure?" she asked. How could anything be wrong with that voice caressing me? How could any problem be a problem while those eyes sparkled?


"I'm sure," I said. "I'm fine." I sat a little straighter, my slump becoming more of a slouch. It wasn't much, but it was an improvement. "You were saying?"


"Was I?"


"Yes. You said you wished you could tell me something. Something I should know."


"Oh, that." She shook her head. "Don't worry about it."


What? She couldn't do that!
"You can't do that! You can't lay something like that down, and then take it away again."


Joy looked nervous, as if she'd let a secret out and had only just realised.
"No, really. Forget it. It's nothing."


I wasn't about to let it go. Joy could be in this dream to carry me through to next year for all I cared. Or she could be here for a reason, the voice of my subconscious working its way up to granting me an epiphany of some kind. Or, of course, she could be a zombie deciding whether to start on my nose or a nice bit of rump.


"Joy," I said, gripping her hand. It was warm. I would have thought zombies would be cold to the touch, so that was comforting. Maybe she wasn't wondering if she should have mustard or plain old ketchup. "Just tell me."


She snatched her hand away as if she thought I was trying to steal it. "I CAN'T!"


"I don't understand," I said. "You can't tell me? What? What's so big a secret you'll implode if you share it? It can't be that bad, can it?"


"It's not that. Nothing like that. I just can't tell you."


"Why?" I insisted. There had been times in our lives when, although we normally hid nothing from each other, we'd had to keep certain things to ourselves. I don't believe anyone is totally open about every tiny little thing with anyone else - siblings, partners, no-one. Whether it's down to guilt, embarrassment or sheer spite, some things are simply meant to kept to one's self, hidden away, held close to your chest lest they get snatched away and held up to scorn, ridicule or horror. Usually it's something small and petty and not worth worrying about, but not always.


Joy and I didn't share our biggest secret with each other. The fact that we could manipulate others' lives, destroying them in my case and making them so much better in her's, was something we'd not told anyone until it was too late. Joy let me know by posthumous letter. I'd told Dr. Connors in the comfort of an asylum; padded cells, padded seats, padded wallets.


This wasn't the time for my sister to be reticent. And anyway, it was my dream. If I wanted her to talk, shouldn't she concede? Was I, in effect, arguing with myself? Did I have not-so-hidden schizophrenic tendencies? At least I wouldn't be lonely.


Joy looked at me, her eyes doleful. She seemed to be struggling with something and I wished she would just let it go and tell me.


"You don't understand," she said sadly. "I want to tell you, but at the same time, I don't." She was right. I didn't understand. "Part of me wants to, but when I open my mouth to, the urge goes. It's like the words are stolen away."


"Who by?"


"I can't say."


"Come on," I said. "Is it the Big Man Upstairs? Is that it?"


"I can't say, Sin. I really can't."


"So, God, in all His infinite wisdom, chucked you back down here, to invade my dream and to tell me a whole lot of nothing. That was nice of Him."


"I'm not saying that, I'm..."


"You're not saying a thing," I interrupted. "You 'can't say' anything!"


"Stop it," she said fiercely.


I stopped. Joy was many things, but very rarely was she fierce. Pissed, peeved and, currently, paranormal, but not fierce. I let her continue, running my fingers across my mouth as if I was closing a trouser zip.


She smirked a sarcastic quiver of the mouth. "I'm not saying there's a Big Man Upstairs. I'm not saying there isn't. And don't ask me about lights, tunnels or bloody escalators! I just can't say! I won't tell you there's a Heaven or a Hell or a great bloody evangelical shopping centre with shops selling halos and Hail Mary's. You're not going to find out if the Jews were right, the Christians, the Muslims or the Jehovah's bloody Witnesses! I cannot say! Nothing and nobody has a hand clamped over my mouth, the words just don't want to come out, OK?"


"OK," I whispered.


"There's things I want to tell you, to help you, but I can't. I'm sorry."


"Help me with what?" I dared to ask. Silly me.


"I CAN'T SAY!" she shouted. I winced. Her velvet voice had developed some sharp edges. I wanted to file them away as soon as possible in case they cut me.


"You can't say," I repeated quietly. "Sorry."


"No," she said, reaching out to hold my hand. "I'm sorry. More than I can say."


"Or can't say."


Her smile was real this time.


"Yeah, or can't. Just... Just be careful." She squeezed my hand. "Be careful."


I wanted to ask why, but there didn't seem to be much point. She wouldn't have been able to tell me, it seemed. But I trusted her, so I supposed I'd be careful.
"I will," I said.


Joy looked out towards the edge of the forest. It was dark beyond the trees. The rain could be heard but not seen, like children supposedly should be. Or was that the other way around? Occasionally a flash of lightning was chased quickly by a throaty rumble of thunder. I followed her line of sight and was startled to see, as the lightning burst across the landscape, the after image of a figure on the edge of the tree line, silhouetted in my eyes. Another flash showed there was no-one there, but I was suddenly uneasy.

End Excerpt.

So, who was the mysterious figure on the tree line? What did he or she do? Absolutely nothing. Which drives me nuts. All these little teases and hints at something that could quite possibly be interesting and move the plot forward serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Just like the three chapters of discussion between Sin and Joy's ghost.

By the time you reach the halfway point of the story, not very much has happened at all. We learn that Sin checked himself in and then out of the mental hospital, that Dr. Connors is not officially pursuing Sin even though Sin is damned sure that he is, that Sin knows people's names and bad deeds, his dead sister's ghost likes to pop in to say nothing of importance, that a random farmer that picks him up is a rapist atoning for his sins, and that the farmer's wife was once a patient of Dr. Connors (which has no impact on the plot whatsoever. Thus, the scene is not necessary). 10 chapters, and all we get is, I escaped from the mental hospital, wound up on the beach, sat under trees while it rained, listened to my sister's ghost not tell me anything and was picked up by some random farmer. OK. So, what does that have to do with anything? What about the sinister silhouette your sister pointed out?

I have serious complaints about the execution of the novel and the events (if you can even call them that) that take place. Mainly because nothing really happens. Ever. My biggest complaint overall is the narrator's inability to move things along. Everything, every tiny little thing that pops into Sin's head is gone over in excruciating detail to the point where he is no longer funny, just annoying. It's like the story itself is stalling, dragging its heels because either has nowhere to go at all (such as a climax and conclusion) or it doesn't know how the hell it is ever going to get there.

In addition, "Sin" suffers from a huge prologue that should either be back story that is slowly revealed, layer by layer, throughout the events that take place in the novel, or the prologue should be the story itself. The book could've taken place with Sin stuck in the mental ward trying to convince people that he is a murderer.  I mean, he doesn't have to be in close proximity to the people he kills or disasters he causes, so why even remove him from the one setting that has been the most thought out? The asylum has characters with back stories and motives, which is something the rest of the book sorely lacks.

The juicy little nuggets Sin occasionally throws to the reader about what occurs in the asylum, the weird and interesting characters that inhabit it, and Sin's battle of wits against the Evil Dr. Connors make a far more compelling story than, hey, I used to use a coin to cause accidents, but now I discovered I can teleport, so... I did.  (Honestly, the coin flip theme really should not have been dropped like a bad penny. It was a good theme for the book and the coin itself was a symbol of the main character.)

Shaun Allan is not a bad writer. There are a lot of things in "Sin" that make me think that one day, he'll be a damned good one.  He just needs an outline, and some focus in his work. Overall, I'd say that "Sin" may have worked as a short story with all the extraneous tangents removed as they serve no purpose and most of them aren't even remotely funny.

My advice (however unwanted it may be), is to use an outline, cut back on the purple prose as it bogs down the emotional impact that you are trying to convey, and milk the heck out of the suspense that you drop in at random intervals. Don't just mention something interesting and noteworthy that may influence the plot and then quickly discard it like an empty bag of chips.

And writers, please, if you do choose to write in stream-of-consciousness and a character spaces out and his mind wanders, don't let it take over the story unless there's a damned good reason for it. Everything that happens in a story, however mundane, should either relate to the plot, the subplot, or reveal something about the characters that are present in the scene; it should not be about how a guy contemplates his navel. Readers don't want to read thoughts as they occur in real-time, just like audiences don't want to watch reality TV shows that aren't scripted and are broadcasted live in real-time.

2 comments:

  1. Crikey! Well the fact that you have included some quotes suggests that you have actually read the book; but you obviously totally missed the genre, the characterisation, the descriptive language, the word play, ..... the point.
    So the book's not written the way YOU would have approached and developed it. That's because it is Shaun Allan (yes, get the author's name correct - a common courtesy) who the character chose to use as his mouthpiece. And that it was Allan and not you is something for which we must all be grateful.
    Review books by all means, but before doing so at least try to read them thoroughly and objectively.
    Such a shame that you didn't ejoy what so many have found to be a magical piece of prose.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for correcting my typo. And yes, I did read the entire novel, just as you read my post.

    I agree with you on one point: it is a shame that I didn't enjoy reading "Sin" because Shaun Allan is a skilled writer. He is lucky to have such a loyal fan.

    Now, just so you know, I didn't slam the book out of personal spite. I just didn't find it entertaining. The book was all over the place, never went anywhere as far as a plot goes, and had absolutely no focus which made it a chore to read.

    As for your comments, I do read books objectively and thoroughly; hence the quotes, comparisons to other literature, and discussion of plot, characters, genre tropes and styles of writing, such as stream of consciousness. As for the genre, characterization, and descriptive language, I think I understood it just fine thanks. It was a supernatural mystery (a sub-genre of horror) about a crazy guy with an undefined mental illness that is an acting force of karma (characterization) who likes to talk about random stuff (descriptive language) and cause terrible accidents to occur.

    I honestly think the author is quite good at word play and descriptions, as I mention several times in the post. Maybe you missed that.

    Everyone has their own writing style, and SOME PEOPLE (i.e me) are not going to like it, while others (i.e. YOU) will love it.

    I'm glad you liked Sin, and that you are supportive of Shaun Allan. I'll be sure to let him know that you're looking out for him. Thank you for taking the time to post your honest opinion.

    ReplyDelete