Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: This isn’t really YA, but could (and should) be read by teenagers, too.

This book tripped me sideways and tossed me back into the world of vintage SciFi and Fantasy. You know those short-sh books with the weirdly illustrated covers and titles that don’t always correlate with the stories inside? Books like these:

SfFcoversAmong Others is basically a love-letter to that genre, and it made me want to love those books, too. I filled up four notebook pages trying to write down every reference to a book Morwenna Phelps writes in her diary. And I’m sure I missed quite a few. The book-devouring young teenager who narrates Walton’s story through her candid, enthralling journal entries is definitely more well-read in that genre than I am. There was an awful lot to read in the late 1970s! She even gives room-mate Rosie some close competition. Instead of feeling alienated by all the references (and I only got maybe 1/3 of them) I’m newly curious to read more. Books about books are so often marvelous.

Among Others is also a love-letter to libraries. Here’s the dedication:

among others dedication

I liked it so much I had to take a picture

The whole book was a fantastic reminder that we should appreciate the fact that libraries let us read whatever books we want, for free, without judging us or giving us trouble. Librarians want you to read, and they want to get you the books you’re looking for. Could there be anything better in life? As Mori writes,

“Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.” (p. 59)

I’ll probably buy Among Others from my bookshop, as I liked it enough to own it, but I’m pleased to have borrowed it from the library for my first reading experience.

Morwenna is half a set of twins, but nobody at the chilly boarding school she’s been shipped to knows that. Her mother was a witch overtaken by the desire for unnatural power, and Mori’s sister Morganna (called Mor) was killed as the girls attempted to stop their mother the previous Autumn. The “accident” that killed Mor crippled Morwenna, and leaves her carrying the weight of Mor’s memory everywhere in life. (The closeness of their names is confusing at first, but also shows how inseparable they were. Mori was defined by Mor, and remains so in her absence.)

In her diary, Mori writes fantastical memories of the sisters running errands for fairies in the ruined factories of their Welsh home. The fairies weren’t the dainty little figures her school-mates would probably imagine. Speaking in twisted phrases; more natural than supernatural; and unreliable at best; the fairies in Aberdare seem to lend their power to whomever knows how to ask for it. So Mori’s mother can manifest evil using the same energy that the young girls could use to destroy factories or protect themselves from harm. Magic works by coincidence, in ways that could almost be explained away by someone who didn’t see what Mori can see. The fairies are a part of the natural order of things, and see how to alter reality with little nudges here and there. Mori and Mor did magic for the fairies without fully understanding it when they were young, and now at Arlinghurst Mori must to find a way to access that power again. As real life obliges to shape itself into what she requests, though, the moral complications of altering the future become worrisome. Can friends you find after magically requesting a “karass” (like those cosmically-linked people in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle) truly like you, or are they obliged by external powers beyond their comprehension? Is it worth it to bear the knowledge that she’s shaped reality for her own means?

“It’s not magic that reaches into the world and changes things. It’s all inside my body. I thought, sitting there, that everything is magic. Using things connects them to you, being in the world connects you to the world… Fairies are more in the magic than in the world, and people are more in the world than in the magic…. That’s why messing with magic so often becomes evil, because it’s going against that pattern.” (p 294)

Her cunning mother tries to manipulate her from afar, the girls at school do rotten things to newcomers, and the fairies in England don’t even speak Welsh! (On that note, I loved the atmospheric differences between Wales and England. The different settings really made the natural magic more accessible to imagine.) Among Others, for all its references to Sci Fi and Fantasy books with epic journeys and cosmic scopes, is mostly a novel about a girl who turns to fiction for guidance as her life becomes harder and harder to believe. Books save her in multiple ways. So many book-ish characters find purpose through literature and hope in other people’s stories. That’s a common trend in novels that I usually enjoy. But Walton takes that lifeline two steps further, here. During one heart-wrenching scene in which Mori has to confront the mortal barrier between herself and her sister, a fairy friend reminds her that she is “half way.”

“… He didn’t mean I was half dead without her or that she was halfway through or any of that, he meant that I was halfway through Babel 17 and if I went on I would never find out how it came out.

There may be stranger reasons for being alive.” (p 89)

I loved Among Others for its unashamedly nerdy main character, and for its glorification of Fantasy as a means to shape young people’s lives. The fairy magic was subtle and fairly organic: enchanted rocks and doorways made of branches instead of big crazy incantations. I’m still unsure what, exactly, Mori’s mother was up to with her manipulative magic and cruel behavior. She rarely appears in the actual narrative, messing with her daughter’s life from afar, instead. This made the book’s climax a little jarring. The magical philosophies could have been developed a little further for my tastes, too, and would have made this into more of a Fantasy book to be read alongside those which Mori’s SF/F book club analyzes so enthusiastically. But since I’m a firm believer that the worlds and actions of fairies should remain inexplicable to human minds, I was happy to go with the flow of how Mori’s understanding of magic grew and changed.

Mori herself grows and changes drastically between September, 1979 and February of 1980. It was a pleasure to read along as she learned how to become her own person, not just a product of her past. Making friends who share her passion and intelligence, forcing herself to admit that there were things she didn’t know, voicing pragmatic quips about the rather silly ways adults can treat handicapped young people: I was constantly delighted by her presence of mind and her emotional integrity. That’s not to say she couldn’t be a bit of a brat or a know-it-all sometimes. But this is her diary, after all. Compared to many of the novels I’ve read in a similar format, Morwenna Phelps’s version of her own story is wonderful to visit for several very happy hours of reading.

Immediately after finishing Among Others I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens Of Titan to get back into the spirit of things. That review will have to wait for another day, but I think I enjoyed it even better thanks to the praise of Science Fiction that Walton had planted in my head. I doubt I’ll ever make it through the 200-ish books Mori mentions, and that’s ok. The exaltation of all those stories was enough to re-kindle my interest in my own favorites from that genre. (For example, I want to get back into LeGuin, Stewart, and Zelazny. It’s been a while.) My book-ish childhood was very different from Morwenna’s, but I recognize a kindred spirit in how her reading colors her view of the world. I recommend Among Others to adults who remember leading vivid fantasy lives as young people, and to teenagers who are getting passionate about Fantasy and Science Fiction. Morwenna becomes a fast friend of the reader; you will feel like part of her “karass” by the time you read her last diary entry. There’s a certain joy known to lonely children who find solace in literature, and an even greater felicity in reading a book that turns that joy into real magical experiences.

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Book Review: Beware The Wild by Natalie C. Parker (coming out soon!)

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 -18

I read an ARC of Beware The Wild and some details may change before publication!

I seriously dig swamp magic.  I mucked around writing half a novel about swamp faeries one Spring, and it was good fun.  The bayous down South hold me in dreadful fascination, even though I’ve never really explored that part of the country and would probably quit after an hour because of the insects.  Swamps make a great setting for mysterious or threatening otherworldly activity, with weird creatures and secrets hidden down below the slime.  Hence my excitement for this new YA novel set in Louisiana, where ghostly girls come out of the bayou and local legends mix with memories which may or may not be trustworthy.  Beware The Wild is Natalie C. Parker’s first book, and I’m excited to see it in bookstores because there can never be too many creepy swamp stories.  This is a good one.

Sterling is distraught that her older brother, Phineas, will be leaving their tiny Louisiana town for college soon.  She’s always looked to him for protection, but now he’s just going to disappear.  That is, she’s sad about him leaving until he really disappears into the spooky swamp that haunts the borders of town – the swamp that’s home to all sorts of unhappy legends, where no one dares tread and which no one will admit has something sinister at its heart.  Once Phin crosses the border, Sterling becomes terrified that her brother won’t ever return in one piece.  And things only get weirder when a girl comes out of the swamp and takes his place, quite literally replacing Phineas in everyone else’s memories and even in physical evidence.  No one believes that Sterling had a brother; not her parents, not her friends, no one except for Heath. Because Heath lost his best friend to the swamp, too, and has been carrying Nathan’s memory on his own ever sense.  Even while false memories of a sisterhood with this mysterious Lenora May threaten to take over Sterling’s desperation to save her brother, she and Heath hang on to what they know is true and try to face the twisted magic which makes the swamp so dangerous.

Wow, so, the plot of Beware The Wild really hits the ground running.  Phin has disappeared by page three, and the swamp demands our attention from the very first sentence.  The girl who comes out of the swamp – Lenora May – establishes herself as a mysteriously compelling tangle in Sterling’s suddenly messed-up life before we even see inside of the high school.  And that’s only chapter one!  The family drama, friendship dynamics, and past romantic tensions come to light gradually, as Sterling grapples with her memories.  She thinks she’ll have to rescue Phin on her own at first, which would obviously be difficult, and the swamp’s background gets clearer as she struggles to come up with a plan. Sterling’s own history solidifies gradually, too. Her voice is well-defined, and the town’s spooky ambiance is believable, so I was able to accept each revelation as it came. The magical solutions which Sterling and Heath use to save their friends were dishearteningly simple in their execution, but the magical logic behind their attempts was sound enough to keep me reading.

The legends connected to the swamp took on different cadences depending upon who told them.  Mrs. Clary at the general store is a bit mystical, so her superstitions had me convinced that something awful lives beyond the boundaries.  Candy – Sterling’s best friend – is a hardcore skeptic who just happens to love telling the local scary stories.  A good mix of very American characters from all perspectives – on matters magical as well as sociable – made for a realistic, modern variety of of attitudes towards whatever danger lies just beyond rational belief.

As Sterling and Heath soon come to understand, the line between memory and belief can get fuzzy when no one else can remember the truth.

For the most part, the characters were developed nicely.  None of them will become favorites of 2014 for me, but they were fun and passionate; likable products of such a cool setting.  I thought that the villainous figure could have been developed much further, though with so much going on and quite a few twists I guess there wasn’t much space for even more exposition.

The writing was fairly strong, especially for a debut. First-person present-tense narratives usually bug me, but the pacing and narrative worked well together, here. I loved how certain details were allowed to slip through the cracks for a little while, until the reader could suddenly realize that something (or someone) was missing at the same time that Sterling notices.  The suspense took on the logic of dreams at those moments, in a consistent way that created a uniquely alarming effect.  Rather than being a jumpy or gory horror novel, Beware The Wild sustains a vaguely sinister tension up through its conclusion, with a few light breaks for awkward dates and emotionally fraught snack attacks.

On the subject of snacks: anyone struggling with an eating disorder might want to give Beware The Wild a miss for now, since Sterling has many a Bad Food Thought. Her decisions and motives are clearly influenced by starvation in several instances.  Other characters definitely act as the voice of reason against Sterling’s worrying behavior, but, as in Brandy Colbert’s Pointe (which I enjoyed but also deals with an ED) the main character’s inner narrative is very prevalent.  Therefore, whenever Sterling throws out a meal or lies about what she’s eaten, her rationalizations become part of the story.  All that sound advice from Candy, Phin, Heath, and other healthy characters comes after a strong emotional aversion to feeding herself properly. For most readers, this will just be an interesting point of character development.  And, rest assured, Sterling does change her attitude towards food as the book goes on.  Unfortunately, for those of us who have also looked for reasons not to eat – especially those of us who thought not eating could make us stronger, somehow – the element of starvation here could easily be a trigger.  So proceed with caution, please!

I recommend Beware The Wild to fans of American ghost stories and superstition junkies.  People who like intriguingly claustrophobic settings for their paranormal drama.  Teenagers with complicated feelings about their families, and anyone who daydreams about how they’ll be remembered when they’re gone.  (I, for one, have spent many an hour wondering how best to achieve immortality through other peoples’ stories.  Even if it’s just, “Don’t do that or you’ll end up like Sarah.”  A cautionary legend, if you will.  The impact of forgetting in this book hit my dreamy side hard.)

Beware The Wild has an atmosphere and themes in common with Beautiful Creatures and (Don’t You) Forget About Me, even though I liked Beware The Wild much better than either of those.   The rich setting and bizarre twists were comparable, but Parker managed to make her characters and magic more accessible, even when we have to get to know them on the fly.  It wasn’t quite so stunning as Franny Billingsley’s Chime, but honestly I can’t imagine anything replacing Chime in my affections. This book has found a place on the high end of my bog-magic list, nonetheless.

The magic in this particular swamp is unique in its function, but hauntingly familiar in the way that it seeps into the sort of fears we try to ignore: that of forgetting, but also of loving too hard, and giving up hope.  A good swamp story is fertile ground for those worries, playing them back to us on a seemingly natural stage, where something unnatural lurks under every root and rock.  Natalie C. Parker’s threatening but lovely swamp has drudged up a ghost story, and a couple of love stories, which will be a welcome addition to the Southern Gothic YA genre.

Book Review: Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up. (Drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll.)  Adults will really like this one, too.

I don’t understand old music, or teenage crushes, or Australia. These are not my areas of expertise. But Girl Defective got to me, even though it was about all of those mysterious things. Skylark Martin lives with her little brother Gully (short for Seagull – their mother liked birds) and Bill, her “analogue” Dad (who gets mopey when he drinks), in St. Kilda, where the summer is hot and things aren’t as simple as they seem. A dead girl, a wayward friend, sinister rockstar parties, and two boys looking for very different answers turn St. Kilda into the setting for an understated mystery that can never really be solved.

Sky “used to be such a sweet kid.” I feel bad for each and every teenager who has ever had to react to that loaded statement. She takes care of Gully, who has some social behavior issues and always sports a pig snout on his face to disguise his facial expressions. Gully wants to be a spy, and treats everyone he likes as though they were secret agents. Sky wants to be like her friend Nancy, a wildcard of a girl who is three or four years older and sometimes speaks as though she were living in a black and white movie, then at other times hooks up with famous musicians and looks right through her young friend. Sky wants to be like Nancy, and at times it seems like she might want to be with Nancy, too. And who could blame her? With her magnetic personality and crazy schemes, Nancy’s hard to resist. From the start of Howell’s new-ish YA novel, Sky is torn between the growing need to indulge in some misguided teenage shenanigans and her long standing duty to look after Gully and keep an eye on her dad, too. So when tragi-hot” Luke starts working for her father and plastering some girl’s face all over town, our candid narrator has a lot of trouble deciding what (or whom) she wants, let alone how she would even go about getting it.

Bill Martin owns a record shop that doesn’t get much business, and a great deal of the book’s action takes place amongst the vinyls and cardboard cutouts at the quirky shop. It’s the sort of place you can picture straight away. There used to be one in every major town, and now shops like these are getting rarer and rarer. Simmone Howell writes about Bill’s Wishing Well record shop so lovingly, with an eye for the silly details which make a place special. Since Sky and Gully’s mother left them to go become an experimental pop star in Japan, the record shop is sort of like another parent to them, and maybe the only reliable fixture in their lives. Descriptions of the regular customers were funny and a little sad; very true to life.

A good balance is struck in the retro vibe of Girl Defective. There’s a pleasure taken in remembering the vintage, but the narrator always keeps her head above the waves of nostalgia that keep her dad from really living in the moment. The internet plays a part in their adventures (in fact, a weird party-photo website is one of the creepier and more memorable details in the uncovering of weird circumstances), and most of the characters are able to separate their artistic interests from real life. Those that can not struggle to function in the real world. Gully’s not the only one living in a fantasy, but at least he has Sky to look after him.

As times get tough and the record store is threatened, Sky daydreams about ways to keep it afloat. She’s also started daydreaming about Luke an awful lot, even though he’s an interloper at the store and might keep her from getting the recognition she deserves for all that responsibility. And Mia Casey, Luke’s dead sister, also takes up a lot of space in her brain. The tragic circumstances of Mia’s death don’t sit entirely well with Sky. So while Agent Gully Martin investigates the ne’er-do-wells who through a brick through the shop’s window at the beginning of the book, Sky tries to put together some sort of explanation to ease her own concern. But finding answers is hard for Sky and Luke when Gully needs constant watching, Bill seems to be hiding something big, and unreliable Nancy keeps leading Sky into troublesome situations without helping her friend get back out of them again.

Gully might think he’s a secret agent, but there’s a reason the title doesn’t read “Girl Detective.” Most of the mysteries in this book go unsolved, or have unhappy answers like: people make mistakes and situations can be dangerous. Sky’s quest for Mia Casey is just a distraction, a way to keep her mind occupied. The real story, here, is about how Sky’s perception of her town changes. The dark underbelly of St. Kilda’s doesn’t resemble those Film Noir movies Nancy loves to quote. Nothing is black and white. The sometimes-hilarious and sometimes-distressing interactions between the Martin family and the people Sky meets are where the real plot can be found. I liked how certain characters seem all cool and tough but turn out to be hiding embarrassing depths of immaturity. I also liked how peoples’ reasons for lying, or pretending, or hiding sometimes ended up being entirely understandable. The creepy concerts, secret parties, and gross landlords were enough to keep this story under pressure. Nancy’s caprice and Gully’s eccentricity ensure that Sky’s year will be interesting.

I liked Girl Defective even though it ended without some personal growth instead of swift justice. It’s a good, realistic YA book that could easily be enjoyed by adults. Especially old rockers and people who have convinced themselves that the old days were better. Sky’s internal narration were spot-on for a teenage girl questioning everything she thought was obvious. The other major characters were fun, too, especially the predictably unpredictable ones. Very short chapters and a conversational writing style make Girl Defective the sort of book you can blow through in an afternoon. The plot might be a little slow for teen readers who want their mysteries to be explosive and the drama to be clearly defined, but I ended up enjoying the lifelike mess of experiences Sky goes through in St. Kilda’s. No one’s home town is normal, and nothing really makes sense when you’re just turning sixteen. At least Skylark has got some entertaining company and good tunes to get her through.

Book Review: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This memoir-in-verse is an absolute gem.  The whole time I read it, I wished I were a middle school English teacher so that I could assign it and then talk about it for a month.  But, since I haven’t the patience to be a teacher (nor even the time to write a really long review), here’s a few thoughts instead.

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars.  This is a memoir.)

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

Age Range Recommendation: 10 and up

The general subject of Brown Girl Dreaming is a simple one.  Jacqueline Woodson (award-winning author of Feathers and many other good books) remembers her earliest childhood days, growing up in both the North and South in the ’60s and ’70s.  Starting with her birth to the Woodsons in Ohio, she chronicles the separation of her parents, a big move down to her mother’s old home in South Carolina, summers with her grandparents, and then the beginnings of a life in New York City.  Five parts of the book categorize these phases in Woodson’s memory, and the pieces of her childhood are remembered through easy-flowing poems, each only a page or two long.  

Aunts, uncles, neighbors, and family friends filter in and out of the cast of characters, while Jacqueline writes about her mother, grandparents, and siblings in evocative detail.  Sometimes when you read a great work of fiction, you start to feel like the imaginary characters were once real people.  In Brown Girl Dreaming, these very real people have such memorable personalities I had to remind myself that they weren’t just made up to suit the story.  

 It’s obvious that Jacqueline had a keen observant eye even before she could read.  Re-told conversations and scenes between grown-ups give the reader an idea of what it was like to grow up during a big push in the civil rights movement, even when most of the action happened on the periphery of the Woodson siblings’ younger lives.  Little moments in the South, where passive-aggressive hostilities still ran rampant even after segregation was technically supposed to be over, made me grit my teeth in frustration, while the hopeful forward-movement inspired by Jacqueline’s mother and her friends buoyed my spirits.  There’s a great image of Jacqueline and her friend walking around NYC with their fists in the air like Angela Davis, and also a wonderfully moving poem which compares the revolution to a carousel: history always being made somewhere, while different people have a part in it. 

But, this being a memoir about her own experiences, the political atmosphere is enveloped by a narrative about growing up.  Jacqueline grows to find her voice, to discover a love of words, and to see how her family’s every-day lives can be the stuff of wonderful stories.  She’s not just a Brown Girl Dreaming, she’s a brown girl learning, speaking, changing, and – most importantly – writing.  And all that scribbling in notebooks has definitely payed off; the simplicity of these poems doesn’t diminish the strength of their message.  In fact, each word seems carefully chosen to reflect the temperament of her thoughts at the time.  It’s rare to read a memoir in which the grown-up writer can conjure up visions of her childhood without a tint of romanticism or regret.  I feel like I got a chance to meet the real child Jacqueline Woodson once was, and to hear her voice as though she was speaking just to me.  For this reason, even though there wasn’t a hugely dramatic plot, I found the entire story enchanting.

While the time-period was tumultuous, and the Woodson siblings had to keep picking up their lives as they moved, this is not a melodramatic story.  The poems are written with an earnest, child-like simplicity that captures the tone of happy summer evenings and anxious walks to school.  There are funny memories, and profound moments, and a general warmth of spirit throughout the whole book.  I loved little Jackie. I loved her family, because it was impossible not to feel how much she loved them, too.  Memory is a tricky thing, and that’s a big theme throughout Brown Girl Dreaming: the logical conclusions we draw as children don’t always hold up against reality.  I can only imagine how much digging Woodson must have had to do –through her own recollections, as well as the history of her families and the places where she once lived – in order to distill this sincere memoir from her past.  I’m very grateful that she gave it so much thought, because the resulting book was an absolute pleasure to read.

I will be recommending Brown Girl Dreaming to pretty much every child/parent/teacher who enters my store.  It’s thoughtful, it’s funny, and it’s easy to relate to Jacqueline even though she grew up in a much different time than this one.  Anyone who has ever called more than one place home; who has worried about their parents; competed with their siblings; and tried to figure out how they fit into their world, will see something of themselves in these poems.  I have too many favorite poems to list, all dog-eared in my book. (I try never to wrinkle the pages but too bad!  These pages need to be remembered.)  Once the book officially hits shelves on August 28, I’ll probably be reading certain pieces at unsuspecting customers.  And as long as my terrible elocution doesn’t drive them away, I think this book will be a hit.  There’s lots to talk about in it, and even more to enjoy.

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.

Short Review: The Isle of Youth by Laura Van Den Berg

This is just a tiny review excerpted from my blog post Birthday, Books, Bedtime over at The Bookshelf Pirate.  I read The Isle of Youth because it got some good press and I like having new short stories to recommend at the bookshop.  Now that it’s the holiday shopping frenzy, I find that collections and anthologies are getting popular as gifts.  Short story collections are often a little hit-or-miss for me, but I was intrigued by this unassuming little volume and bought it on a whim. The Isle of Youth is a collection of several short stories by Laura Van Den Berg, all of which tend to focus on displaced women struggling to understand how they relate to their surroundings and to the people in their lives.

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Characters: *** 3/5 stars

Writing: *** 3/5 stars

Plots: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars out of 5, because some were great but others bored me.)

About half of the stories really interested me, while others slipped from my memory almost immediately.  The title story came at the very end of the collection and it was one of my favorites, probably because it was about a woman’s relationship with her volatile sister and I thought that the characters were entertaining and complex.  I find the dynamics between siblings and friends so much more interesting than romantic situations (or, in the case of The Isle of Youth, quiet romantic implosions and disasters).  The story “Lessons”, about a band of young bank robbers, was another favorite. In my opinion, there aren’t nearly enough stories about teenaged cousins and siblings on crime sprees!  That was another one which gave wacky backgrounds and intense motivations to a cast of characters, despite the short time we get to spend with them. I could have read a whole novel about that family.  I also enjoyed the dreary, beer-stained story about a girl who works unhappily with her mother in a cheap magic show.

Though some Van Den Berg’s pieces bled together into an indistinguishable examination of relationships and unspecified discontentment, certain details were vivid and fresh.  For example – and this was of particular interest to me though the story itself wasn’t one of my favorites – there was one which mostly took place in Antarctica, but one character had been kidnapped and held hostage in the very towns where I work/have worked.  It’s really unnerving to read a fictional account of a girl your age being snatched at knife point mere meters away from where you’re taking your lunch break.  So that was cool.  One story, which took place in Paris, started out slow but quickly grabbed my interest when acrobats and masquerades came into play.  Unfortunately, that particular story suffered from a rushed and inconclusive ending which snatched the magical feeling away in a puff of smoke.   There was a lot about marriage, siblings, memory, and ambiguous desires in The Isle Of Youth.  Very few of the endings gave us any solid resolutions, but that’s ok because the style was mostly realistic and real life rarely follows any sort of literary structure.  Occasionally, characters became too paralyzed by introspection to keep me interested – Van Den Berg’s ladies do like to wallow in their own thoughts – but that might be more a problem of personal preference.

I’d probably give The Isle of Youth 3/5 stars because the individual stories might do better in anthologies than in a collection all by the same author.  I got a little tired of their theme after a while and felt a little deflated while I was reading.  There’s no denying that Laura Van Den Berg is talented, though, and she clearly put a lot of thought into her characters and their situations.  Her writing digs into some deceptively simple parts of life to show how being an adult is confusing for everyone.  Reading these stories made me want to try being a little more understanding of the people I encounter every day.  The collection is not too long and the stories tend to be of easily digestible lengths.  It would be a good gift for someone who doesn’t have too much time to read but who likes to have meaningful conversations at parties, or with themselves.