Monday, June 13, 2011

Chime, by Franny Billingsley

I bought Chime on the strength of Franny Billingsley's The Folk Keeper, and it didn't disappoint. Chime is gorgeous, lush, creepy, luminous, romantic, terrifying and heartbreaking. Briony, Rose, and Eldric: how could you not want to read their story? (Assuming it's not all fairyland and elves, which it isn't. At all.) Here's the first two lines:
       I've confessed to everything and I'd like to be hanged.
       Now, if you please.

I don't need to say anything else: you must want to read it now. Especially with that cover. And the amazing font in the chapter titles.

Okay, I'll tell you a little more about it. Take equal parts Brothers Grimm (NOT the expurgated versions) and Bronte sisters (mostly Jane Eyre). Throw in a healthy dollop of campfire horror tales. Then wrap in silk and ribbons and take it "into the wild, into the real, into the ooze and muck and the clean, muddy smell of life." Past the Flats, through the Quicks, across the snickleways of the Slough. Hide it in "a tangle of mist and midst" in the middle of the swamp, and then come back and ask, "A person must always keep a secret, mustn't she?"

Oh, and it's a love story.

Briony narrates, Briony who hates herself. Briony who says she deserves to be hanged. Briony who takes care of her twin sister Rose, because Rose can never be left alone, and now that Stepmother is dead there is only Briony, because Father is never home.
Father's silence is not merely the absence of sound. It's a creature with a life of its own. It chokes you. It pinches you small as a grain of rice. it twists in your gut like a worm.
Silence clawed at my throat. It left a taste of burnt matches.
No, our family doesn't talk much. 
The narration is oblique and halting, because Briony's understanding of herself is oblique and halting. Her memories of what happened to Stepmother and to Rose don't match up, but she is certain the terrible things are all her fault, because Briony is a witch. Her anger and jealousy are dangerous because she can call up the Old Ones from the swamp, even if she doesn't intend to. At all costs she must prevent herself from hurting anyone else, particularly Eldric, with his "golden lion's eyes and a great mane of tawny hair," who stirs up more jealousy than ever. And isn't that odd, because Briony is too wicked to be able to love, isn't she?

The swamp is both setting and character, and Billingsley's poetic prose turns delicious every time Briony enters it:
My moonbeam skirts were pale moths, fluttering past the skulls of giant mushrooms. I sank into peat moss and autumn leaves, into the musk-stink of dying cabbage and the splosh of decay.
Voices laughed and ran past me in the shadows. I ran through a tangle of moonlight; I ran into a copper sea. If a body meet a body, comin' thro' the rye.
I was wild, I was wolfgirl. I was light as a moonbeam, my bones were filled with lace. I ran past chiming voices. "Pretty girl love pretty boy."
Chime is a puzzle. You will likely put the pieces together before Briony does, but will you figure it out before Eldric? Rose already knows.

This is a tasty novel, deep and layered, full of secrets: gingerbread with pears poached in red wine topped with cinnamon creme.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Canadian Book Week: Susan Juby

Alas, I am a fickle blogger! I'm not quite sure what has happened to the last three weeks. Perhaps I got caught in a time vortex because the Tardis was in the neighborhood. (Have you been watching the latest Doctor Who season? Crazy weird plot-lines! I loved the Neil Gaiman episode. But I digress.)(I actually know where the last week went, because since I began this review we decided to sell our house and buy a townhouse, and for some reason we decided to do everything this week, just because we weren't busy enough already. Sneaking the time to write this review was a bit therapeutic.)

I promised to do a Canadian book every month, and I'm a little late for May's, but we can pretend it's still May, can't we? Because I really must blog about Susan Juby. I just finished her latest, The Woefield Poultry Collective, and I was laughing so hard I was crying--which made the people in the park look rather strangely at me!

I think humour might be the hardest thing to write well, and Susan Juby is brilliant at it. She began with a young adult trilogy: Alice, I Think; Miss Smithers; and Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last

Alice is a teenager in the very small (and quite real) town of Smithers, BC, homeschooled by her vegetarian, pacificist, feminist mother ever since "a series of unfortunate social failures in first grade, connected to my mistaken belief that I was a hobbit." In Alice, I Think, she tries out high school, with mixed results, and "personal expression via fashion experimentation," with even more mixed results. In Miss Smithers, she becomes the Rod and Gun Club representative in the Miss Smithers Pageant, much to her mother's dismay:
My mother has been attempting maternal guidance. Her unsuccessful efforts have revealed the fascist tendencies just below the surface of most New Age practitioners and cemented my commitment to civic participation. If I wasn't already entered in the Miss Smithers contest for personal growth and financial gain, I'd now be in it for spite.
In Alice MacLeod, Realist At Last, her mother goes to jail after an environmental protest, her boyfriend leaves for Scotland after an awkward goodbye ("Our last chance to consummate our love. Ruined by a moose"), and Alice writes a screenplay. "I've channeled some of my anxiety into my art, but I still have quite a bit left over." Exotic fish, leather pants, and knitting play key roles in Alice's adventures, and she's helped through her self-actualization by a therapist nicknamed Death Lord Bob, a best friend ("More accurately, she is my only friend") who "looks sort of like how I used to before I started making an effort," and a younger brother who is "the only genuinely together person in our family. . . We all try to take our cues for how to behave from him." As the highly suspect narrator of her own embarrassing mishaps, Alice forges through all the issues of adolescence with a gawky sense of elan. If you have ever felt like you don't quite fit in, you will love Alice.

The Woefield Poultry Collective is Juby's latest, and her first for an adult audience. Doesn't it have an awesome title? (Be sure you get the Canadian edition: they named it Home to Woefield in the States, which is the lamest alternate title I've ever seen. Is "poultry" too difficult a word for Americans? Or is it "collective" that's the problem, with its scary socialist implications? What were the publishers thinking?)

Woefield has four hilariously unreliable narrators: Prudence, a city girl from New York who inherits her uncle's farm on Vancouver Island and decides to become an organic farmer; Earl, the old farm hand who doesn't know much about farming but plays a mean banjo; Seth, a twenty-something alcoholic recluse who shows up on Prudence's doorstep after his mother kicks him out; and Sara, a twelve-year old girl who raises competition chickens while her family falls apart. As if they didn't have enough problems between them, Juby throws in Bertie the depressed sheep, Eustace the very good-looking vet who disagrees with all of Prudence's environmental beliefs, and a bluegrass festival. Absurd situations abound (there's nothing like sheep for a little absurdity), and the characters' disparate reactions to each new crisis add layers to the humour.

You will find it particularly funny if you, like me, are a city girl with pretensions to sustainability: if you've tried vermiposting, if you've read The Omnivore's Dilemma and think small scale wholistic organic farming sounds wonderful, if you feel guilty every time you grocery shop because everything you buy harms something in some way. I was hooked from the moment Prudence described the death of her worms from being overwatered during a heat wave: "The poor things drowned and cooked, leaving a sort of warmed-over red wriggler soup."

Warning: there is strong language. Normally I would object, but I have to say that this book wouldn't be the same without Earl's colorful voice (several swear words in the following quotation):
I was trying to stay the hell out of the way, but when I saw the first shithouse fall off the truck, I thought, goddamn it, I'm going to have to get involved. No way around it.
That right there sums up the theme of The Woefield Poultry Collective: you deal with sh*t by getting involved.

Juby doesn't shy away from issues (even in her YA writing): alchoholism, divorce, sex, bullying are all treated realistically and with compassion. No easy answers, but perspective. Her humour is never cynical nor mocking (at least, not the bad kind of mocking, only the good kind): we are laughing with her characters, not at them.

If you need a good belly-laugh; if you need to feel that in the chaos of the universe events still might turn out for the best, I recommend Susan Juby. Like popsicles on a hot day, she's just the thing.