Book Review: 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

Toot-tootle-oo! (That’s that medieval trumpet sound of oh-hey-big-news, but you’ll have to imagine it sounding more impressive than the phonetic sounds I just typed out…)  The National Book Award’s long list for Young People’s Literature has been announced!  I’ve read three of the books already: Skink – No SurrenderBrown Girl Dreaming (I reviewed it here), and 100 Sideways Miles.  I really badly want to read The Greenglass House (after reading the Book Smugglers’ praise of it), Revolution, and Port Chicago 50.  In celebration of these books getting recognized – congratulations to one and all, by the way – I think I should write a quick review of 100 Sideways Miles, which I actually read on Thursday, not knowing it would be on the list.  I read an ARC of the book, but you should check out the hardcover if you can because the inside jacket has a cool little picture for curious peekers.

Star Ratings for 100 Sideways Miles

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 14 + (Lots of language, talk of sex)

Andrew Smith is a weird-ass writer.  He writes weird-ass books, and they’re not for everyone.  Personally, I think they’re pretty funny.  He has a talent for embodying the voice of a certain type of teenage boy, and he continues to do it well.  Those teenage boys are usually in wack-attack-y situations, think Grasshopper apocalypses and rough boarding school experiences, in some of his earlier books.  And the supporting characters tend to be really, erm, memorable.  100 Sideways Miles continues in this fine tradition, and will probably appeal to fans of John Green’s more outlandish novels or the surprisingly relatable books by Meg Rosoff.

I don’t really know how to go about describing the plot of 100 Sideways Miles.  Finn has seizures, sometimes, and he has an always-inappropriate best friend who has everyone in the palm of his hand, and he has a dad who once wrote a SciFi novel with a cult following.  He has a crush on this beautiful new girl at school, a powerful need to beak free from his father’s literary shadow, and a big scar on his back from when a dead horse fell from the sky and crushed him and killed his mother.  Finn measures time in distance, because in the space of one second the Earth hurtles 20 miles through space, so basically every little thing that happens on the surface moves very little in comparison.  Finn and Cade and Julia break into abandoned buildings, camp drunk, and make terrible dirty jokes.  Finn tries to find a way to free himself from his father’s book, because he feels like too much of that weird story about alien visitors coming to Earth and then eating people is based on him.  Or he’s based on it. Or something.

Even though everyone’s always worried about the possibility of Finn “blanking out” and getting hurt, he and Cade plan a trip to go see a college, but the trip doesn’t go as planned.  The become unlikely heroes, sort of, and come to understand life better, maybe.  The plot doesn’t matter so very much; it’s not what kept me reading.  I liked the strength of friendship between these two rather different boys, and the witty banter.  I’ll remember the occasional striking moment when all of Earth seems to slow down for just a second and make a little bit of sense, just because one confused teenage boy looks at how far it’s carrying us in the grander scheme of things.  There’s a lot of swearing, because that’s how high school boys can be honest with each other without sounding like utter tools.  There’s some awkward condom buying and bizarre sexual favors, because, um, hormones exist.  If it weren’t for the strange parallels to Finn’s father’s writing, or the weird turns of events near the end of the story, I would call this a very solid work of realistic teen fiction.  The stuff about “getting out of the book” seemed a little forced to me, and the pacing was slow in the beginning and then rushed at the end.  Still, it’s fun to read about the comical (and sometimes profound) interactions between characters in situations which are almost like the ones regular teenagers have to face all the time, just skewed a little to be surprising and entertaining.

Grownups aren’t entirely absent in 100 Sideways Miles, and some of them are pretty interesting (Cade loves to torture this one history teacher who dressed up like a Nazi to make history “come alive”, and eventually stresses the guy to death), but they’re not important.  Julia is a very realistic girl, not necessarily quirky or “special” or “not like other girls”. She is like other girls, for the most part, but she happens to be the one that Finn falls in love with.  I liked that.  She’s also black, and the two of them talk about that without making it a big issue.  I liked that too.  She has an unhappy event in her past which I thought could have been treated a little more thoughtfully, and their quick feelings for one another grew out of almost nothing, but I appreciated the natural interactions between the two of them.

Anyway, the relationship that matters most is that between Cade and Finn.  Cade is…well… he honestly steals the show a lot of the time.   Which is kind of the point: he makes people laugh and makes things happen and Finn is ok with that.  Aside from the distasteful jokes and his weird obsession with certain body parts, I can see why people like to be around Cade so much.  He keeps things lively.  And the friendship between the two boys is what keeps 100 Sideways Miles lively, too.  They look out for one another.  They humiliate one another, which made me laugh to remember how much of high school I spent cringing in embarrassment around my own friends.  People and conversations are what Andrew Smith is best at. Luckily, I think that there are plenty of teens who like those qualities to shine in the books they choose.  So this will be a book for them; the readers who write down quotes and see their friends as characters.

I’m still rooting for Brown Girl Dreaming to win the National Book Award, but I’m glad to see that Andrew Smith got some recognition for this fresh and entertaining book.  I’ll leave you with a quote I particularly liked, to prove that there are some real winners scattered throughout the text.  (It’s quoted from the ARC and may have changed slightly since publication.)

“Worry and regret are both useless weights that provide no drag.  They never did anything to slow down the planet for one goddamned second.”

And good luck to anyone who closes this book and would rather forget that the planet is careening through space at a sickening speed.  It took me hundreds of miles to even finish two sentences.  I think that however far the Earth takes you while you’re reading this book, it’ll be a trip worth taking.

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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.