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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Valentine’s Day Special: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

source: goodreads

Daniel Handler, please be my Valentine.  There’s not a single damn thing you’ve written that I don’t love.  This includes the new picture book 29 Myths On The Swinster Pharmacy, which was authored by some suspicious bloke named Lemony Snicket. (Snicket writes an awful lot like Handler.)  But today is Valentine’s Day, so here is a love story which implodes spectacularly before Valentine’s Day even comes around.  Talk about good timing!  But honestly, I don’t like romantic stories very much, so this is the best I could do upon remembering the date.  February 14th?  So that explains the sudden, raging success of Junie B Jones And The Mushy Gushy Valentine at my shop.  (If I had to give a more thematic recommendation, that would be the one.  Can’t go wrong with Junie B, but Daniel Handler is even better.)

Min Green and Ed Slaterton aren’t necessarily made for each other, but they fall in love and stumble around through a passionate high school romance until – quelle surprise! – they break up.  The book begins at the end of their story: Min is returning a box of relics from their relationship, and what we read is her long letter to Ed that goes with it.  Maira Kalman’s illustrations of each object – items like a file which meant to be baked into a cake, a weird spiky seed-pod thing, and a meaningful box of matches – are simple and interesting and make the reading process rather a joy.  Ed’s the basketball team co-captain.  His friends are jerks and he goes through life with the blinders of popular-senior-boy success blocking out a great deal of his surroundings.  Min has long been part of those surroundings, obsessed with old movies and drinking fancy coffee with her artsy friends.  But, she insists, she’s not actually artsy. She’s not good at art.  She doesn’t make good grades or like beer very much.  Yet, somehow, she and Ed start talking at a party. They start to date, stalk a possible movie star, insult each other’s friends, behave explicitly in parks, tell each other secrets, give each other weird gifts, and eventually break up.  Min’s bitter, tender, stream-of-consciousness letter is like one very long Tumblr quote, in the best of ways.  Open up to any page and you’ll come across something like this:

“And it wasn’t just us. It wasn’t just that we were high school, me a junior and you a senior, with our clothes all wrong for restaurants like this, too bright and too rumpled and too zippered and too stained and too slapdash and awkward and stretched and trendy and desperate and casual and unsure and baggy and sweaty and sporty and wrong.”

or this

“There are so many movies like this, where you thought you were smarter than the screen but the director was smarter than you, of course he’s the one, of course it was a dream, of course she’s dead, of course, it’s hidden right there, of course it’s the truth and you in your seat have failed to notice in the dark.”

It’s a surprisingly heartfelt story, and I don’t have much of a heart with which to feel.

Why We Broke Up is probably the most mainstream of Daniel Handler’s books: it distills all the sublime dialogue and weird adolescent energy so prevalent in The Basic Eight into something more realistic. In The Basic Eight, the teenaged characters are extravagant, and their lives go totally nuts as the plot gets weirder and weirder.  (Read my review of The Basic Eight here.  It was my favorite book I read in 2013.)   The opposite seems to be the case in Why We Broke Up.  Stylistically, the books are similar.  You’ll recognize your favorite weird Handler/Snicket-isms sprinkled throughout.  Big words.  Pretentious drinks.  Vintage pop culture.  Interesting food.  But Min, Ed, and the other characters just feel so vividly real, so tragically similar to the people you encounter on a daily basis – just with better one-liners.  Even the minor characters are excellent, and perfectly evoke the awkward balance teenagers almost always fail to strike between love, family, and friends.  And, since they’re minor characters in Daniel Handler’s capable hands, you know they’ll be witty and judgmental and possess obscure talents.  In this particular book, though, teenagers are distinctly teenagers even when they’re making igloos out of cubed eggs for an aging film star’s secret birthday party.

My favorite part of the book?  They steal a sugar dispenser at one point, to make a cake which requires stolen sugar.  That’s just one of the Various Fictional Details which make Why We Broke Up an indespensable part of the Handler/Snicket universe I love so much.  Adults in this book are almost entirely useless, and that never fails to make me happy.  We’ve got kids navigating the treacherous world of romantic nonsense guided only by their disobedient hearts and terrible judgement.  We’ve got nerdy references and sordid affairs. If you want more nerdy references and sordid affairs, check out the Why We Broke Up Project, in which many of my favorite writers and some hapless readers share their own tales of heartbreak, woe, and bad music.  Isn’t that what this holiday is all about?  So happy Valentine’s Day, readers.  Don’t screw it up.

Star Ratings for Why We Broke Up

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4  stars)

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

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

Book Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

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

Age rage recommendation: 14+ (Or, you know, only people who are ok with lots of bloody violence. It’s a vampire book, after all!)

 

I was delighted by Holly Black’s new YA novel, The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, in more ways than one! It’s a disgustingly entertaining book, and I had the wonderful fortune to attend her reading and talk in Cambridge this week, where I got to hear about the writing process and what experiences go into the fantastic stories she tells. I read an ARC of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown a few days before it was released, and here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, it’s inspired by one of my favorite of her short stories, of the same title, in which vampirism is a disease which causes its victims to go “cold” for eighty eight days. If someone who’s survived being bitten by a vampire can withstand their all-consuming hunger for blood, they remain human. Vampires and the infected are quarantined in Cold Towns, and anyone who goes cold must surrender themselves or be considered a danger to society for obvious reasons. The thing about Cold Towns is, anyone can sign themselves into one, but you can never leave again unless you have a very special marker and aren’t Cold or a Vampire. Of course, this being the age of reality TV and live blogs, feeds come out of the Cold Towns glamorizing the constant bloodletting parties and the dramatic lives of the real vampires who live there. Misunderstood goth kids will do anything to become a vampire – though bitings are growing rare since vampires don’t want to create competition for the blood supply – and events like The Eternal Ball and Lucien Moreau’s highly-televised parties draw thousands of viewers from outside the heavily guarded walls. You should check out Holly Black’s short story in her collection The Poison Eaters, because it’s a great introduction to the dark and gritty atmosphere of the novel. (Please buy it from an independent bookshop, or ask your local bookseller to order it for you! Amazon is evil.)

So the background to the novel was awesome to begin with, but how about the book’s specific plot? Also awesome. Tana wakes up the morning after a drunken party to find that all of the other party goers – most of them her high school classmates and friends – have been brutally murdered. With her infected and infuriating ex-boyfriend in tow and a suspiciously helpful vampire boy in the trunk of her car, Tana heads to Coldtown hoping to get Aidan through three months of cold hell and somehow make it back to her father and sister. They encounter a pair of vampire obsessed siblings with connections in the nearby Coldtown, and things soon spiral even further out of Tana’s control when everyone around her becomes desperate enough to put their own desires – blood, immortality, escape from a mysterious past – above the struggle to stay mentally and physically human.

I liked Tana as a protagonist because her motives were simple and real. She wants to survive Coldtown, get back to her family, and convince her little sister that turning into a bloodthirsty monster isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She wants to figure out what horrifying force is pursuing the cute but terrifyingly-insane vampire who owes her his life; not because the two of them are destined to save the world (such an exhausted plot twist in YA these days) but just because she likes him. She wants to help her friends and keep them from biting her. She’s horrified but determined, and it’s easy to invest in her troubles because she experiences a conflict between the instincts of self preservation and loyalty in a completely realistic fashion throughout the whole book. The supporting characters have lots of depth and great backgrounds, too. Tana’s ex boyfriend is charming but frustrating, the famous vampires were terrifying but so completely fascinating, and the human inhabitants of Cold Town had really interesting lives. Plus, there was an awesome Trans* chick who kicked ass without functioning as a mere one-dimensional attempt at diversity! Woohoo!

Reading The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, I noted with interest which parts of the Vampire Literature tradition Holly Black had adopted into her own mythology, and which conventions she decided to ignore or subvert. It’s impossible to write a vampire book without involving some of the patterns and themes from a genre which has been so popular for centuries, and Black does a great job of acknowledging this while still letting her own creativity take center stage. There were obvious influences from Anne Rice’s vampire books – the attention loving villain reminded me an awful lot of Lestat – and some of the action scenes took on a Buffy-eque, cinematic style. It’s a bloody story, and the narrative never shies away from gore in favor of Romantic death metaphors. In fact, the violent descriptions are an integral part of the story’s dichotomy: the quest for a beautiful immortality appeals to the vainer side of human nature at the cost of our self restraint, but the reality of becoming a monster is hideous and painful.

I imagine that any reader will be able to spot hints of their own favorite vampire legends and series when they read the book. At her talk at the Cambridge Library, Holly Black mentioned a whole ton of books and movies which had built up her image of vampires and asked us which vampires we remembered igniting our interest as young readers. The list included: Dracula, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Carmilla, Sunshine, and even TV and movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that 80s film The Lost Boys, among many others. Aside from the obvious lineage behind Coldtown, I also thought of some embarrassing obsessions from my teenage years which actually fit quite well with the tone and themes of the book. The sarcastic heroine reminded me a little of Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ short and bloody YA books, while the themes of loyalty; desperation; and gritty violence actually brought me right back to the years when My Chemical Romance was the soundtrack to my life. Their early albums I Brought You My Bullets You Brought Me Your Love and Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge go surprisingly well with the pace and structure of The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, though it was uncomfortable to hear the sounds of my fourteen year old weirdness eight years later…

There were a few aspects of the book which I thought could be improved upon slightly, but for the most part I really enjoyed it. The big, dramatic parts of the story actually belonged to the vampire characters and not to Tana herself, so there’s quite a lot of exposition and other characters talking about a history which the protagonist never experienced. However, I was glad to read a book about a teenage girl who isn’t the center of some powerful machination and who isn’t destined to save the world armed with nothing but underdeveloped special powers, so I didn’t mind that structure too much. Some of the interesting minor characters didn’t get enough page-time to satisfy me, but the book was a good length in the end so I suppose their moments had to be pared down to only the most essential contributions. I’m not sure if Holly Black intends to write a sequel to The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, but I was so very happy that it didn’t end on a dangling cliffhanger. If she releases another novel set in Coldtown – either about Tana and her friends or just in the same fictional timeline – I will be excited to read it, even though I’ll be grossed out and nervous for the next few days, like I was this week. The book is great on its own. If you’re after a gross and gripping tale about complex vampires, with a few clever twists, I think that The Coldest Girl in Coldtown will satisfy the morbid side of anyone looking for a disturbing and addictive book to read this Fall.

Archived Review: The Curiosities by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on March 26, 2013.

 

Since this is an anthology of short stories, the star ratings will be slightly different.

Star Ratings:

Writing: *** (3 stars. The authors chose to present their stories in their raw and largely unedited forms: notes in the margins point out what they would like to change. Despite the rough writing in places, the general quality is very good.)

Arrangement: **** (4 stars. Stories are relatively varied and presented in an appealing order. I wish the final story had been stronger, though.)

Balance: **** (4 stars. We get a nice mix of fantasy, horror, speculative fiction, legends, and psychological darkness.)

Personality: ***** (5 stars. I mean to say that the authors’ personalities and their writing styles shine through their commentary in the best of ways. We see how they work as writers and it makes them even more lovable/admirable.)

Overall: ***** (4 stars.  I really like this book!)

Inspired by their collaborative website, The Merry Sisters of Fate (merryfates.com), The Curiosties showcases quickly written pieces of short fiction by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff. The stories tend to fall within their collective genre of paranormal or speculative Young Adult fiction, but each author contributes stories which refuse to be contained by one genre or even – as the amusingly hand-written margin notes point out – by their own distinctive writing styles. Brenna, Tessa, and Maggie share their thought processes, inspiration, and their opinions about each others’ work, and we get to see how their voices have changed and developed as a result of their literary friendship. For readers who pick up The Curiosities as fans of one particular author, there will be plenty of familiar themes and fixations within these pages. But it’s the unexpected pieces, the stories which surprised the writer, and which her friends admit to wishing they had written first, which make this collection so valuable to admirers of these authors and their subjects.

I was only slightly familiar with the authors of The Curiosities when I started reading. I’ve shared my high opinion of Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys already, and I remember getting carried away into the dark and intricate world of Yovanoff’s The Replacement a couple of Novembers ago, but I wasn’t particularly well versed in their bodies of work and I’d never read Gratton at all (though I wish I had – she’s great!). My ignorance didn’t really matter, though, because through witty banter with her friends and wise thoughts on writing, history, magic, etc, each writer bares her personality and makes her voice as distinct as if we knew her personally. The informal tone of this collection sets off some of the truly dark stuff which it contains, and you get to read a well balanced combination of YA anthology and “How We Write” essay, all in one attractive package.

The stories themselves are excellent fun, provided that you enjoy the sort of writing done by these women. While the pieces are varied in terms of plot and format, and while the order in which they’re presented keeps the pace from dragging, they are resolutely stories for Young Adult readers who like elements of the paranormal; the esoteric; the sinister; and the weird. (A note: by “Young Adult reader”, I refer to anyone, young or adult or somewhere in between, who enjoys YA fiction.) You will find monsters and creatures to suit every taste, retellings of legends and stories prompted by fairy tales, good old fashioned ghost stories, horrifying visions of the future, and even some stories featuring no technical magic at all but which embody a perfectly chilling sense of dread. You will read about highschool, college, alternative historical settings, the ancient north, and steampunk or sc-fi cityscapes. There is kissing, killing, and wit galore.

What you won’t find in The Curiosities is grown-up, tightly plotted, examinations of every day life; at least, there are no mundane sensibilities left to carry a story on their own. But themes get heavy in this collection, underneath the strange and beautiful surface. Maggie’s pieces about geniuses behaving badly and legends existing in our world deal with questions of power, loyalty, and how to spend the time we have given to us. These are questions which The Raven Boys also handled very well. Tessa’s tales about monsters and complicated spells examine the importance of bravery in the face of sorrow and how traditions shape our lives. And Brenna’s stories about psycho killers tricked by even-more-psychotic killers, lonely ghosts, and wishes gone awry reveal the capacity for darkness which waits within all of us, and that desperate need for understanding which can save us when we’re young. These ladies know what they’re doing, and they do it well: telling us eternal truths hidden deep within compelling stories which appeal to our sense of the macabre and the fantastic.