Book Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Don’t be deterred by the annoying cover – this book is excellent!

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 +

Nancy Werlin recommended Chime to me way back in the fall when I met her at the Boston Teen Author Festival. I was one of those insufferable young aspiring writers who blabs about her work-in-progress to patient authors, and I knew that Werlin had written some YA novels inspired by just the sort of faery lore which was also inspiring me.  She was kindly encouraging, and one of the first things she asked upon learning that my faery story takes place in a swamp was, “Have you read Chime by Franny Billingsley?”  I had not.  I was told that I must.  I believed her.  Then I promptly forgot all about such instructions and only sat down with the book months later when I needed something gloomy, youthful, and uncanny.
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There was a small void in my reading life, waiting for a natural tale of unnatural creatures, and Chime filled that void perfectly.  I didn’t have particularly high expectations of this YA novel: only that it would be swamp-y and contain faeries.  Well, it completely passed those moderate expectations – blew them out of the murky, slimy water, as it were – and then some.  This was a truly remarkable novel.  I’m wildly impressed with Franny Billingsley, and have a mind to track down all her other books so I can get lost in them, too.
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Chime is Briony’s story, and Briony would like to confess to her crimes and be hanged.  It’s one of the more interesting opening pages I’ve come across in my reading life.  Hangings? Swamps? Wickedness?  Sign me up!
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chime text
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From here Briony tells us, in her own words, the events leading up to her trial.  It’s sometime around the end of the 19th century, and the secluded English village of Swampsea has been living in tandem with some supernatural neighbors for ages.  The townsfolk have a special method for trying witches, to ensure that they don’t hang innocent women, but lately the Chime Child responsible for making that judgement has been making mistakes in her old age.  Anyone who wanders into the swamp carries bits of bible paper with them, as protection against the faery-like creatures who dwell there.  The “Old Ones” range from mischievous nature spirits to the downright malevolent entities like The Dead Hand.   A deadly swamp cough troubles the town, and people live in fear of the “Old Ones,” though they’ve grown used to living beside them by now.  And yet, as it always does, progress has finally made its way from London to Swampsea. Mr. Clayborne comes to drain the swamp, bringing his son Eldric with him from London in the hopes that the University lad might stop getting into trouble and attend to his studies in less invigorating environs.  Swampsea is going to get a railroad.  Swampsea is going to join the fashionable and modern world.  Unfortunately, those spirits and creatures who dwell in the swamp aren’t too pleased about these new developments.  They need someone to hear them, to side with them, and stop the process.  Or the Boggy Mun will keep inflicting the swamp cough on innocent townsfolk, like Briony’s sister Rose.
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Briony is the Parson’s daughter.  She is also a witch.  She admits that to us from the beginning.  There’s no point in hiding this fact, and she’s grown comfortable with the wickedness which must then be an inherent part of her being.  She’s always been able to see the Old Ones, but it’s her ability to call them up to do her bidding which makes her capable of destruction.  Swampsea, in all its superstitious vigilance, does not take kindly to witches who can summon the Boggy Mun to flood the parsonage and incapacitate her beloved stepmother.  There’s not a lot of sympathy in the village for a girl who caused her twin sister to fall, hit her head, and lose her wits when Briony was a child and couldn’t control her powerful urges.  Briony’s stepmother understood.  She helped Briony to hide her power, kept her from entering the swamp, and always repeated that they must never, ever tell her father, who would feel obliged as the Parson to turn his own daughter into the authorities.  But their stepmother is dead, and there are blank spaces in Briony’s memory.  Was the fire, which burned up all the fairy stories she used to write for Rose, really Briony’s fault?  If stepmother didn’t take her own life with arsenic, who killed her? What mysterious illness afflicted their entire family when they were children, but not anyone else in town until Eldric comes down with it, too?   What terrible secret is the addled Rose trying to convey to her twin sister – some secret about their birth which she was forbidden to tell long ago?  The more we learn about the answers to these questions, the less sure we can be about anything in the natural and unnatural world of Chime. If Briony can’t trust herself, let alone anyone else, who can we turn to for the truth?  You will want to read this book and find out, I promise you that.
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The story is wonderful, but the writing is even better.  Each time I’ve recommended the book, the only way I can describe the beauty which Franny Billingsley weaves into each paragraph is by saying, “I want this tattooed on my face.”  That wouldn’t be a pretty sight, and I probably won’t get lines from the book going across the bridge of my nose, but I can find no better way to express my enthusiasm. There really are some marvellously poetic arrangements of words; the images are occasionally mesmerising; and the dialogue is good, too.  Briony’s voice is unfaltering — at no point does the narrative drop into a more generic omniscient tone, which is impressive since Briony’s thoughts are always twinged with guilt and colored with distrust verging on desperation.  The narrative is so personal but also requires some careful exposition to get us comfortable reading about the freaky swamp and unusual customs which seem so normal to the characters.  Briony has a rather poetic thought process, herself.  While the sing-song formulas and imagined patter might seem out of place at first, it quickly becomes clear that our conflicted narrator draws upon these literary formats to distance herself from the serious (and deadly) concerns hiding behind her wordplay and hypothetical conversations.  She compares Eldric to a lion, herself to a wolf-girl, and has metaphors on hand for whomever crosses her path (human or not).  This could have grown tiresome very quickly, but I think that the technique was employed just shy of over-zealously, and therefore it worked out beautifully.  Remember that Briony’s a teenage girl, and that’s the time when we think of everything as our own personal fairy-tale.  It was an absolute pleasure to read every page of Chime.  Not a word was wasted, not an image used uncertainly, and I could picture every strange event quite vividly.  Whatever magical power Ms. Billingsley has over language, I’d make a few blood sacrifices to get a taste of it, myself.
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My complaints about this book are very few and not too consequential.  I don’t really like the title; it doesn’t have much to do with the majority of the novel.  But it’s not a big deal, the title isn’t horrible.  It just doesn’t hint at the general swampiness, the creeping sorrow, or the sharp dialogue which I enjoyed so much.  On that note, the Chime Child and some of the other minor characters weren’t as fleshed out as maybe they could have been.  There is so much going on below the somewhat-puritanical surface of Swampsea, and I wanted to understand every single secret.  Secrets are the whole point of Chime; how they can control us and turn us into something we’re not.  But most characters’ stories are pretty much left alone, unless they have anything directly to do with Briony’s.  I suppose that’s only fair, but I hate it when my curiosity isn’t satisfied.  The Chime Child only makes a few appearances, despite the incredible cool-ness of her job description.  Seeing “Old Ones” and dealing out death sentences: what a lady!  I wish there had been a few pages dedicated to such details, as well as to the other characters who made Swampsea such a fascinating stage for this story.
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There’s also the question of romance.  Eldric is staying in the Parsonage with Briony, Rose, and the girls’ father.  It’s not too surprising that things must escalate for the sake of the story.  I’m pleased to report that Briony and Eldric start out by developing an honest and entertaining friendship, forming a secret brotherhood and starting inside jokes just because they’ve been thrown together by circumstance.  He’s a city boy, and lives life at more her speed than anyone in her own village, so I didn’t find their interest in one another too forced.  What a damned relief!  My one complaint on the matter would be the sudden inclusion of another woman after Eldric’s affections.  The fashionable lady who is drawn to his artistic endeavours and starts turning up everywhere has a mysterious secret which makes her a little more interesting, but on the whole I thought her character was mostly unnecessary.  Jealousy made Briony catty rather than sharp, but even though this may have been an important layer to her character, the dangers presented by beautiful, manipulative Leanne weren’t nearly as interesting as the dangers presented by the swamp, the townsfolk, and Briony herself.  The matter was resolved satisfactorily, but it was probably my least favourite part of the book.
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Those tiny issues aside, though, I will reiterate that I absolutely adored Chime.  It’s just the sort of book I was wanting to read: intense and dark, but without the oh-help-the-world-will-end-if-we-don’t-save-it drama.  The drama here was powerful because we care about the characters and don’t want to see their lives turned upside down.  The rest of England — indeed the rest of the world — would go on without Swampsea if it had to, but that’s one of the many reasons I was so desperate to find out what would happen.  Magic isn’t always big and grand, it can (and should) be organic and subtle, earthly and timeless, with roots in one strange scene.  Chime gets this just right, on every single page.  The murky swamp and the dark corners of the town are each fraught with peril, and our narrator’s mind hasn’t much more hope, but in the end most mysteries will come to light.  What these answers might reveal about our heroine, her family, and her conviction in her own wickedness must remain to be seen.  Read the book to find out.  It’s beautiful and you’ll probably love it.
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Some St Patrick’s Day Reading Suggestions

Way way back in 2011, in honor of Bloomsday (even though I couldn’t actually finish UlyssesI listed three examples of good Irish books to read.  Well, I figure it’s about time I expanded that list a little.  There are probably hundreds of Irish books I could recommend for the occasion, and even more which are inspired by that marvelous and literary country. But we’ve not got time to sort through a list of titles longer than the road is long, so here are some of my particular favorites chosen from the crowd:

The Burning Of Bridget Cleary is an astoundingly compelling book which Jane Yolen recommended to me years ago.  I usually have trouble getting into nonfiction, but this true story is so strange, so twisted, and so evocative of more magical times that I get fully absorbed every time I go back and read it.  The Burning of Bridget Cleary is the true story of a village in county Tipperary who believe that a clever and slightly strange woman, Bridget, is a changeling and to get rid of the evil faery spirits they burn her. Even her husband believes this to be true. Did I mention that this incident happened in 1895? That’s not much more than a century ago! I re-read the book while I was in Ireland last year, and looked at all the old cottages and the sprawling farms under the spell of this tragedy whenever I rode past small villages on the bus.  It’s a book you won’t soon forget, and shows how superstition and fear can influence whole communities through the lens of this one tragic event.  Angela Bourke is an excellent authority on the subject; she speaks Irish and lectures on the language and Irish oral tradition in several respected universities in Ireland and America. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in Irish folklore, 19th century history, and even true crime.

When I was a teenager, I picked up John The Revelator by Peter Murphy randomly one day because it had a crow on the spine, but lo and behold it was about two things I love: childhood and Ireland. I was told it compared to an Irish, modern Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and being one of Mark Twain’s biggest fans I purchased this book immediately. While I wouldn’t necessarily say it was as good as Tom Sawyer, John The Revelator gave a lasting impression of what it was like to come of age in the South East of Ireland under the guidance of a very sick mother, a nosy and intrusive neighbor (the perfect caricature of the traditional well-to-do old Irish woman), and a mischievous and persuasive best friend. The book tackles religion, the law, loyalty, and innocence without ever becoming too preachy, and in fact the moralizing characters are generally disliked. How could it be otherwise when the narrator is relatively normal boy with a slightly unhealthy obsession with bugs? There is also a certain creepy atmosphere of doom and very-Irish-gloom throughout the whole novel which, naturally, I rather enjoyed.

I read Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl over the summer, upon my bookshop manager’s recommendation (although he wasn’t my manager yet at the time, I’ve just always trusted his suggestions).  I actually didn’t know much about Ms. O’Brien before I read the book, but she wrote so beautifully about growing up in rural Ireland, and then about growing into a writer while trying to make a life in bigger cities, that I felt like I’d known her for ages as I read.  Memoirs aren’t always my cup of tea, but when the writer can describe the setting for her own life’s story in such vivid and amusing detail as this, I can be won over completely.  I particularly like her memories of being a young child in a small town – so different from my own childhood, and yet she captures the aches and joys of being young and in the country so accurately I forgot that I didn’t grow up in the same time period and place.  The later half of the book has some great details about her famous friends, as well, though I preferred the early half simply for the setting. 

If you’re after good memoirs about decades past in Ireland, also check out Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir Of A Dublin Woman by Nuala O’Faolain.

My favorite Irish children’s book might be The Hounds Of The Morrigan by Pat O’Shea.  I wish wish wish it were still more readily available, but since it came out over two decades ago you’ll probably have to find it either from used bookshops or appeal to your trusty librarians.  This is a fantasy adventure in a similar style to Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series or even Dianna Wynne Jones’s children’s books, but with a wonderfully hilarious style akin to Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  Two young Dubliners – 10 year old Pidge and his hilarious little sister Bridget – encounter figures straight out of Irish mythology as they embark on an epic adventure, hotly pursued by the hound servants of the Morrigan, who wants to take control of a mysterious old book Pidge has come across.  The range of characters is spectacular, and the story moves along at a sprightly pace.  I loved this one as a middle schooler, but re-read it in University and was happy to recognize even more references to the legends and folktales I’ve read along the course of my life.  Highly recommended to anyone who misses the fantasy books of the past few decades, children and adults alike, as well as to people who like their Celtic Mythology to be lightened with a bit of clever, youthful humor.

Finally, I would be much remiss if I didn’t mention my beloved W.B Yeats.  I was lucky enough to see a whole exhibit devoted to his life and works at Trinity University last year, and have been a big fan of his writing for a long time.  I’ll admit that I only understand about 70% of his poems – the more metaphysical stuff goes right over my head – but he has such a varied and impressive collection of work there’s bound to be a poem which speaks right to the soul of pretty much everyone.  Most of my favorite English-language poems from Ireland were written by this fellow, and if you haven’t read at least one of his poems yet, do so without any further delay! Yeats covers pretty much every subject that I care about: Ireland, faeries, the troubles of growing old, and history. Actually, one of his poems, “To Ireland in The Coming Times” covers the majority of these subjects at once. My favorite of his poems has to be “The Stolen Child,” which I first heard while studying Irish Dance as a child, and I think it captures the appeal of Irish faery-lore pretty damned perfectly, and childhood as well.   Other favorite poems of his include “A Faery Song,”, “A Crazed Girl”, “The Wild Swans At Coole”, and “When You Are Old”.  Seriously, just go to the library, grab a collection of Yeats’s poems, flip open to a random page, and read what you will.  Flip around until you find something which has the power to move you to tears.  I promise you there’s at least one poem which will make you want to weep in the hills of Ireland somewhere until you can weep no more.

Other suggestions for newer Irish books, which I’ve browsed through at my bookshop but haven’t yet read, include:

The Gamal by Ciaran Collins

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

The River And Enoch O’Reilly by Peter Murphy

City Of Bohane by Kevin Barry

Greyhound Of A Girl by Roddy Doyle (a children’s novel by the author of Guts and The Corrections)

Any favorite Irish books to add to the list?  What are you reading this St Patrick’s Day?  I’m planning to eat soda bread, play the tin whistle very badly, and recite The Stolen Child at anyone who crosses my path.

Reading vs. Research: Pirate Edition (and a reading list)

This is yer Captain speaking.  We’ll be taking a quick break from the folklore and fairy tales for this very important compendium of pirate and nautical literature I compiled a while ago.  I’ve attempted to make clear the distinction between books I read for fun and books which are research, but those lines keep crossing over themselves whenever I least expect it. This is by no means a complete list, but for anyone who wants to read some jolly swashbuckling tales or learn more about the Age of Sail, you might find something of interest.  Please comment with any recommendations, if you will!

One of two pirate shelves in my room.

As if my poor brain wasn’t taxed enough trying to keep books I just want to enjoy separate from books full of information I need to understand, there are certain times when I think I’m just reading something for fun, only to realize that I ought to be taking notes for a novel or story I’ve got in the works. And there are times when the opposite is true: I expect to learn a lot from a book and then I close it hours later having had a jolly time between the pages, but I’m no more educated than I was when I started. I’m going to try and explain this distinction using some of the books I’ve read or researched on the subjects of piracy and maritime history/adventure, because no time spent reading about scurvy knaves and mutinous plots is time wasted.

1. Black Jacks: African American Seamen In The Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster = RESEARCH

This book is full of exactly the sort of information I desperately needed to figure out for the Middle Grade novel I’m writing. The author did a phenomenal amount of research, and has peppered his facts and figures with some truly excellent anecdotes of brave seafaring escapes and daring (well deserved) rebellions. It’s an exciting book, but definitely a history text instead of a fast-paced narrative. I doubt I’ll end up reading every page of Black Jacks, as it’s due back at the library soon, but will probably end up skipping around to all the passages which talk about black pirates specifically. That being said, there are some history buffs, nonfiction readers, and salty souls out there who could probably get through this book as a weekend’s reading. It’s written well and super interesting, and I do heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in this most worthy of subjects. If my own word is not enough for ya’ (and why should it be? I want to steal boats for a living!), here’s an article about an inmate who was imprisoned for bank robbery, but got inspired by Black Jacks to work towards a goal of eventually becoming a sailor, as the sea had always called to him.

Source: Washington Post

My weather-beaten and unfeeling heart was warmed near to cooking when I saw that W. Jeffrey Bolster and Gregory White had kept in touch throughout his incarceration, and that this fellow sea-rover had realized his dream of freedom at last. Good stuff, eh? That’s one of the most uplifting true stories I’ve read in a while. Three cheers for books, for the sea, for Gregory White, and for the long list of Black mariners from centuries past who are getting attention at last! Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah!

2. Powder Monkey by Paul Dowswell = READING TURNED RESEARCH

I took this one off my nautical shelf after I finished reading Bird because I needed to get myself back into pirate-mode but I still wanted to get lost in some good children’s fiction. Powder Monkey is a novel for young people, though I’d not readily give it to any youngsters who are too faint of heart as it’s bloody and historically accurate in its grim portrayal of the 19th century Navy life. I thought this book would be a gripping adventure, and was thus prepared to get fully absorbed in the shipboard drama and perilous environment which I so adore in my favorite books about Naval sailing ships. Powder Monkey seemed like a Young Adult foray into a genre which boasts excellent historical fiction like Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin series. There were plenty of similarities, to be sure, but Powder Monkey wasn’t quite so up-to-snuff in the plot and character divisions. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. On the contrary, I had a great time reading it, despite the many gruesome sights our poor young hero must face as a pressed lad helping to man a cannon in a time of war. The thing is, I think that I liked Powder Monkey so much because I expend an unusual amount of brain power worrying about press gangs and trying to figure out how a sextant works or what disaster would have to befall a person to warrant a hook for a hand. These are not necessarily the concerns of every young scamp. What might have been a somewhat less-than-inspiring quest for entertainment turned into a really exciting two days of research. Once I stopped grumbling to myself about the thin plot and started admiring Dowswell’s portrayal of life aboard the Miranda – not an easy life for a lad – I was happy to read Powder Monkey all the way through. Some of those harrowing facts and descriptions will haunt me for a good long while. I just wouldn’t press the book on a kid who wasn’t already interested in learning about the age of sail.

3. Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer = READING

Just read this book, you lubbers, and you can thank me later. This is everything a YA novel about the age of sail should be. It does provide a fairly faithful picture of life for a wayward ragamuffin at sea, but the story and – most importantly – the characters are so good that you won’t want to put the book down for a moment even to find a pen or look something up on Wikipedia. I’ve written a longer review of Bloody Jack here and can assure you all that it’s one of my top fifteen favorite books of all time. The following two books in the Jacky Faber series, The Curse of The Blue Tattoo and Under The Jolly Roger are also excellent, though the series gets a little drawn-out from there. No matter! Jacky Faber is one of the best narrators in children’s fiction, and the sort of scallywag I wish I could be. I re-read this first book frequently whenever I’m missing Bar Harbor, and while it certainly gets me keen to write my own pirate book, I’d absolutely call what I do “reading” instead of “research,” because I’m usually clutching at my heart in a fit of emotion or laughing way too hard to get any real booklearnin’ done from these adventures. Go and find this book right now. Captain’s orders.

4. On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers = READING

I bought this book years ago, when the pirate novel I was writing at the time bore very little resemblance to the book I’m working on now. I wanted to have a supernatural bent to my own story at the time, and maybe include the ghosts of some pirates past. Years went by, I read many a book which included real historical figures as characters and sent hapless young protagonists back in time, and I eventually decided to toss those notions overboard. Maybe when I was trying to fit ghosts and magic spells into my own story, On Stranger Tides might have had some useful information in it. But while it is definitely a thrilling and swashbuckling romp, the details of the plot must be taken with a whole fistful of salt. For one thing, there’s voodoo and magic. I love me some voodoo and magic – in fact, I write about them all the time! However, it’s important that we remember that most pirates terrorized the shores and sea without the assistance of talismans or curses. Even as far as superstitions go, Powers has definitely adjusted the historical facts to suit his narrative. And why shouldn’t he? This is storytelling, after all! I liked the supernatural aspects of On Stranger Tides just fine, but would not take anything I discovered from the story as historical inspiration unless I’d found some other trustworthy sources. There’s also the weird inclusion of very real pirates in the totally fictional story, which might be fun for some readers but never failed to trip me up. Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, Jack Rackham, and several of my other heroes make cameo appearances in On Stranger Tides, and whenever I encountered one of them I always wondered, “but what were they actually doing on that particular Wednesday?” These were real live ladies and gents of fortune, and it’s perfectly fine to fictionalize their lives to enrich the plot of a novel, but that makes the novel good for entertainment purposes only.

5. Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities by Terry Breverton = RESEARCH

This handy encyclopedia contains “a miscellany of the sea and all things nautical,” and it’s been a stalwart companion while I write. A good friend gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago, in Scotland, and she clearly knew me better than I knew myself because I don’t know how I would get through a chapter without it, now. The entries are brief and fascinating; it’s not exactly a complete account of every fact ever associated with the sea, but provides excellent inspiration when I’m wondering, what nautical fact could I throw into this chapter to make it more…briny? Breverton’s collection contains a whole list of Pirate Haunts And Targets; explanations of how common phrases originated from shipboard life; tiny biographies of impressive sailors, including scores of sea-dogs I’d never heard of before; and very helpful explanations of weapons from the Age of Sail, which I have consulted many a time this month. The chapter I’m working on right now deals with weaponry and I’m completely baffled by the amount of Things Designed To Kill You which existed back then. So thanks, Terry Breverton, for making my research so easy to tackle! This book is invaluable to my own research, but I promise you it would make an excellent gift for anyone who likes sea stories and/or random curiosities. Pages and pages of fun facts, I tell you! Amuse and impress your friends, enemies, and that person next to you on the ferry with obscure histories about doomed warships and the etymological origins of sea-slang. Or just give them Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities and they can amuse and impress themselves…

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Other pirate books to read for fun:

Pirates! by Celia Reese – Good historical fiction and girls kicking butt!

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates by Caroline Carlson – A jolly adventure for younger readers.

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie – My favorite story in the history of stories.  Captain Hook is a classic.

Capt. Hook: Adventures of a Notorious Youth by J.V. Hart and illus. by Brett Helquist – Great twist on Captain Hook’s backstory.  Obstinate young scallywags causin’ all sorts of trouble.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – Another classic sea adventure.  Long John Silver is one of the best pirate characters in history.  I want to be him when I grow up.

Silver: Return To Treasure Island by Andrew Motion – I bought this in Edinburgh last year and still haven’t read it.  Once it’s summer I intend to re-read Treasure Island and then dive into this continuation.

A High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes –  Wildly under-appreciated novel about a pirate crew which ends up in charge of a bunch of children.  I get really excited about it here and even have it as one of my “staff picks” at the bookshop.

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton – Ridiculous but fun swashbuckling thriller.  Best taken with the same grains of salt as On Stranger Tides.

Other pirate books recommended for research:

If A Pirate I Must Be: The True Story Of “Black Bart”, King Of The Caribbean Pirates by Richard Sanders – I read this when I was in high school and Bartholomew Roberts has been one of my favorite pirates ever sense.  Entertaining story of an unbelievably cool captain.

The Republic Of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard – I think the subtitle says it all.  A rather sensationalized account of pirates and their enemies, but includes tons of great facts and talks about several important figures.

The Pirate Hunter: The True Story Of Captain Kidd by Richards Zacks – Whole book entirely about Captain Kidd, which was a gripping read but had tons of great information.  Helped me appreciate the sea shanty, too. 

Under The Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly – Real pirate adventures were sometimes even more bloody and thrilling than the myths Cordingly dispels.

A General History Of The Robberies And Murders Of The Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson (pseudonym) 1724. – Excellent contemporary account of real pirates written during the Age of Sail.  Shows how the world pirates lived in viewed them and profiles some Captains best not forgotten.  This book is still in print today.

Easy-to-read history books which mention some admirable pirates:

Famous Last Words by Jonathan Green – A morbid and entertaining collection of the last thing people said before they died.  Includes some great 18th century zingers as well as criminal’s last declarations before being executed, tragi-comical accidents, and some rather touching examples too.

Badass by Ben Thompson – An entire book devoted to famous badasses from history, written by the fellow behind badassoftheweek.com.  Naturally there are plenty of sword-weilding action heroes from the sea as well as land.  Includes Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, and Lord Nelson, amongst others.  You can read an old review I wrote of it here.

Princess Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie – Each chapter is about a princess from history who decided to lead thrilling lives of ill-repute.  Includes lady pirates and generally inspiring role models for every young lass who likes sporting a crown and a cutlass in equal measure.

There are plenty more books on the subject which I recommend, and infinitely more which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.  Only last week I was at a bookstore in Central Square which had a whole little section devoted to Nautical resources!  As you might imagine, my inner pirate capered throughout the shelves in jubilation.

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By the time I’m finished writing this damned book, I’m sure that there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of additions to this list.  Some books will be full of shocking facts, others with thrilling stories, and undoubtably some with appallingly bad writing.  To all of the above, I say huzzah!  Bring it all on, me hearties, because there’s a lot I still don’t know about seafaring life.  The only solution is to keep on reading.

Archived Review: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

(I originally wrote this little review for a magazine at my University, back in Feb 2012.  I’m cross posting it here because I’ve been thinking about fairy tales a lot, lately, and seriously recommend this collection.  It’s still in print, too, unlike some of my other favorite anthologies.)

source: indiebound

I was a little wary when I opened the provocatively-named anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me; a collection of “forty new fairy tales” compiled by Kate Bernheimer. Re-told, re-imagined and modernized fairy tales have become wildly popular lately- and I’ve left many a cinema and shut many a book feeling disappointed. Too often the director or writer makes an easy interpretation by amping up the sex and violence while just barely clinging to the bones of the fairy tale – at that point, why not just write an entirely new story? At other times I can barely spot a difference from the original folk tale besides a shifted point of view. After a while the poor, misunderstood wicked step mother’s perspective gets pretty old. So I didn’t let my hopes get too high when I began reading My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, but in the end I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the collection’s major virtues is the sheer variety of authors who re-worked fairy tales and myths into their own style of story; greats of the genre like Neil Gaiman are filed among newer writers I’d never heard of, and even authors not always associated with fantasy – Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, for example – contribute to make the anthology wonderfully well-rounded. In her quest to present fairy tales as legitimate inspiration for quality literature, Bernheimer solicited pieces from authors “whose work had suggested ‘fairy tale’… whether in obvious or subtle ways.” She isn’t kidding about that.

Some of the stories were ridiculously fantastical, some verged on sci fi, while others had only the slightest hint of fairy tale hidden within the writing. The selection covers a whole spectrum but each story stands out as a shining example of its kind. In a way this extreme variety could seem jarring; Timothy Schaffert’s trippy and disturbing “The Mermaid in the Tree” preceded a story by Katharine Vaz which contained absolutely no magic and read like a realistic literary examination of a relationship. Staggeringly different in tone, the fact that both stories were based on “The Little Mermaid” surprised me. The stylistic disconnect between stories proved to be a good thing, though, as 533 pages of only a few writers’ voices would have been boring at best and irritating enough that some stories would go entirely unread. Instead we have forty new fairy tales told in forty unique styles, and something can be found within the anthology for every reader.

I would recommend My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me to anyone with an interest in fairy tales, be it a residual love for the colorful films of one’s childhood or a growing fascination with folk tales and legends. It’s the sort of book you can read on the bus without fearing the judgmental glances of scholarly sorts (though they shouldn’t judge at all because at least you’re reading, right?). Kate Bernheimer has succeeded in convincing me, for one, that fairy tales can be fodder for serious literature as well as entertaining fluff, they just have to be wrought by the most capable hands in the business. I’m pleased and relieved to say that this is one book that I closed with regret rather than disappointment. I was sorry to reach the end and I hope to see similar endeavors on shelves in the future.

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

source: goodreads

I often wonder if I’m in danger of becoming a fairy-tale villain. I don’t like little children. I’m greedy, I’m selfish, and I occasionally think about cursing people into small amphibians or enchanted sleeps. Like Boy, the main character in Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, I spend an awful lot of my time looking in mirrors. It was fascinating to watch Boy’s progression from abused daughter to possibly evil stepmother, especially since it’s easy to see how we might follow the same path if we were in her place.

It’s 1953 and Boy Novak has run away from her abusive father, the rat catcher, in New York City.  She chooses to make her home in a Massachusetts town peopled by skilled craftsmen despite her lack of any artistic occupation. The magazine quizzes tell Boy that she might be frigid, and there are times when mirrors seem to enchant her while she sees truer reflections of herself walking across the street, invisible to everyone else. It takes Boy a little while to get her bearings, though she’d never admit this to the characters who try to befriend her, but eventually she puts a past love behind her and marries a teacher-turned-jeweler; a widower with a stunning little daughter whom Boy can never quite figure out. “[Snow] was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it.” (p 71) Just as Boy starts to grow comfortable in Flax Hill with Arturo’s family the Whitmans (that’s right: Snow Whitman and her stepmother…) she gives birth to a little girl of her own. Snow is the one to suggest the name Bird, and Bird grows into an inquisitive and lively young teenager who does the name justice. Bird also comes out brown skinned, which exposes the Whitmans as having Black ancestry in the not so distant genetic past. They might live in a fairly accepting Northern town, but this is still 1950s America, so everyone is pretty shocked when Boy chooses to send Snow away to stay with Arturo’s estranged sister and her more obviously  Black husband instead of Bird. Thus begins Boy’s transformation into something of an evil stepmother, something of a protective mother despite the cultural obstacles, and something of a confused fairy tale heroine in her own right. As family secrets get tangled into legend or pulled out into the open, a realistic portrayal of self preservation versus difficult truths mixes with the stuff of bedtime stories to create a touching and clever novel which enthralled me completely.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of re-told fairy tales. I like stories which are fairly obvious in their parallels and I also like mostly-original novels which follow an understated pattern of fairy tale logic and contain hidden references along the way. Oyeyemi has borrowed the fairest-of-them-all conflict, the child-sent-away plot catalyst, and the magical qualities of names for her novel. She has sprinkled her tale of new beginnings and re-shaped families with references to “Snow White,” most obviously, but also a whole library of other myths and legends.

That being said, Boy, Snow, Bird is not really a fantasy novel. I mean, there are no dwarves and no magic apples, but there’s also no concrete suggestion that all this talk about curses or fate might be truly serious. Maybe the fact that all three title characters don’t show up in mirrors, sometimes, should be read as pure metaphor. Maybe Boy Novak runs away from her vicious father with the grim profession to a secluded town just because the time is right, and not because she’s following the well-trodden path of all those girls who struck out, cursed, for unknown lands in the storied traditions before her. Maybe Bird can’t really talk to spiders. Maybe the mystical powers girls like Snow and Sidonie hold over boys – regardless of race in such a racially aware time – comes from something within them that isn’t so much magical as genetic or psychological. Who knows? All I know is that Helen Oyeyemi did a marvelous job integrating some of my favorite themes and traditions into her writing. Every few pages, I have passages underlined in pencil or sticky notes pointing out of my copy of the book, marking my favorite references both obvious and minute. I bet there are plenty I’ve missed, too. There were connections with the German and English tales we’re all quite used to, but also some references to the Black American legends of John the Conqueror and the more Romantic poem Goblin Market; mixed allusions are hidden all over the place and I wanted to high-five Oyeyemi from afar every time I noticed one of my favorite obscure little legends.

Aside from the layer of magical motifs which embellished Boy, Snow, Bird, there were several other aspects which rather enchanted me. Yes, the characters were memorable – though I thought that the male characters were distinctly less developed than the vivid female ones – and the setting made a nice stage for the volatile time period in which the story takes place. (It was pretty odd to read about a fictional New England town which was meant to be less than an hour away from mine. Every time the characters went to Worcester I couldn’t help but picture the streets and restaurants I’ve personally encountered.) But it was the way that certain characters interacted with each other and learned to distrust their first, second, third impressions which really caught my attention. When Bird gets work as a coat check girl on a party cruise simply because she’s got blonde hair – the 1950s were absurd – and strikes up a friendship with Mia, who masquerades as a blonde to write an article about the whole shindig, there’s a bit of foreshadowing there for the bigger disguises which will reveal themselves in time.  All clever plotting aside, it was entertaining to watch their friendship develop, and to see how Mia’s doggedly inquisitive personality rubbed against Boy’s challenging one. The bookshop owner who later employs Boy is an ornery old English lady who turns out to be full of little surprises, not the least of which being her patience and understanding to the three precocious young black children who spend their afternoons reading at the shop instead of going to school.  Since Boy, Snow, Bird is a novel which focuses on race, I was glad to see these kids through the eyes of a lady who has absolutely no time for racist nonsense. Think Aunt Eleanor from Inkheart, dispensing thoughtful advice about theoretical curses rather than facing down real magical villains. The supporting cast of ladies, including those who had ugly pieces of their souls hidden away, were as carefully characterized as they were diverse. I didn’t really mind the fact that Boy’s husband and the other menfolk weren’t so interesting. They just seemed more realistic, less complex, a little drab; and maybe that’s part of what made the book seem to follow Anderson’s and the Grimms’ formulas. The honest woodcutters (or jeweler, in this case) and the kingly fathers rarely have any clue what’s going on under their noble, hardworking noses. It’s the women and children who notice the threats in nature and in their own reflections.

My favorite interaction to witness was probably the correspondence between the nearly grown up Snow and her half-sister Bird in the middle section of the book, which was told from Bird’s perspective. We get such a romanticized picture of Snow from Boy’s chapters – not always in a good way – that it’s hard to see her as a real person for the first half of the narrative. But she finally gets to have a bit of her own voice in the letters she exchanges with Bird, who doesn’t have any set opinion of this beautiful but incomprehensible girl just yet. “I don’t think Mother Nature likes us much,” Snow writes to her sister once they finally make contact. “If she did, she wouldn’t make the things that are deadliest so beautiful.” (p 230) It’s observations like that one which turn Snow into more than just a beautiful concept against which other characters can hurl their dreams and prejudices and insecurities. For all that Boy finds herself at internal odds with her stepdaughter once her own daughter is born, this is an observation which sounds like it could have come straight out of Boy’s head.

The conflicted stepmother and the fairest of them all aren’t so different, and in the end I read every one of their own encounters with my breath held a little, waiting to see if there would be violence, or tears, or retribution, or forgiveness. This book isn’t a fairy tale, it just shows us a picture of diverse life half a century ago through the window of the folklore we recognize, so no one falls asleep after eating a poisoned apple. The forgiveness and acceptance we seek while reading Boy, Snow, Bird does come to pass in the end, up to a point. But it’s a fraught road to get there, and you can’t be quite certain that things won’t soon tumble back into the deceptive, treacherous world of hidden identities and quiet manipulations. I’m choosing to hope that there might be a happy ending for Boy, Snow, and Bird, though, because I grew attached to all three of them. Even if true happiness isn’t an option, I closed the book wishing that they might survive whatever harrowing journey through the woods they three had embarked upon together.

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)