Chime by Franny Billingsley

“I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.

Now, if you please.

I don’t mean to be difficult, but I can’t bear to tell my story.  I can’t relive those memories-the touch of the Dead Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp.

How could you possibly think me innocent? Don’t let my face fool you; it tells the worst lies.  A girl can have the face of an angel but have a horrid sort of heart.”

Briony conceals her second sight and forces herself to use her right hand because in Swampsea, witches are hanged, and Briony absolutely, positively, must not die.  Dying, you see, would break her promise: she must always live so she may take care of Rose.  Briony’s life is consumed with care for her identical twin, Rose, in an attempt at penance for a childhood accident that irreparably changed her. However,what is she to do when saving her sister’s life means that Briony must sacrifice her own?

Briony’s scrupulously honest, don’t-pity-me, prickly demeanor does nothing to conceal her vulnerability; she is a multi-dimensional artwork of a narrative persona, relating a chilling tale of secrets, bargains with spirits, and subterfuge. Furthermore, she’s unreliable: readers are unsure exactly what the truth is. Briony hates everything, including herself, and Billingsley’s masterful characterization prevents her from reading as selfish or irritating. You’ll love the distilled gems of bleaks humor like this:  “Skipping meals is terrifically convenient: It gives one lots of time to brood and hate oneself”.

The language itself is another reason to love this story.  In an interview, Franny Billingsley said that she drew inspiration from the wordplay in folk songs and ballads, and definitely adds another layer of appeal to the novel.  Words invert and rhyme, creating an interesting textual parallel for the reader’s changing perceptions of the characters and the story as layer after layer of deception is excoriated.  Adding to the literary complexity of the work is the story’s structure! It’s not difficult to follow, but hearing the tale backwards, from the moment we know Briony is to die, brings a sense of urgency to the story. Finally, even though we begin the story knowing the ending already, Billingsley manages to keep us wondering and worrying about it.

This creepy and enthralling novel was a finalist for the National Book Award last year, amid some controversy.  I found it a combination of delightful elements that are so often honored by the award, including high literary merit.  Furthermore, the romance (yes, there’s romance, but I promise it isn’t offensively saccharine!) is based on equality and mutual respect and tenderness, which is delightful to see in these paranormal books, as they often rely on tired stereotypes of straight relationships.  The one concern I have is one the author herself has also acknowledged, that of the “beauty barrier”.  Books about non-beautiful young women are disappointingly scarce, and this is no different.  Billingsley missed a perfect opportunity to give us a complex and appealing heroine while also affirming the importance of other values besides traditional beauty.

That said, if you love witches and swamps and the feeling you get when you read Jane Eyre, this one’s for you.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.frannybillingsley.com

Billingsley, Franny. Chime. New York, Speak, 2011. 361 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked this one, you can rejoice: the author claims she has two related novels she is working on!  While you are waiting, you can check out books like Beauty and Ash and  Castle Waiting (for the feminist graphic-novel antidote to the stereotypical beautiful heroine) and Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyrefor the classic take on creepiness.

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How to Pick an Awesome Book

How do you decide what to read?  People don’t talk about it enough, but I think that picking up a new book creates a bond of trust between an author and a reader (and, if someone recommended or assigned it to you, with the third party, too).  You’re hoping that whoever handed you the book knows what she’s talking about, and-more importantly-knows what you like.  You are also hoping that the author isn’t going to let you down, right?  “This is a horrible story that pushed me ten hours closer to death with nothing but grumpiness to show for it” is the flip side of “This book was so amazing that it changed my life and I want to name all of my children after the characters”.

To protect you from the Potential Misery of Picking a Book You Don’t Like, I’ll tell you what I like to do to find the good stuff.  But, as LeVar Burton would say, “You don’t have to take my word for it.”

Guide to Finding Books That Aren’t Awful

1. Judge by the cover.  Totally. It doesn’t work every time, but it’s a good way to find books like the ones you’ve already read and enjoyed.  Want a supernatural teen drama?  Look for the books with girls in puffy dresses against dark landscapes.  A quirky mystery, like A Series of Unfortunate Events?  Check out the ones with quirky illustrations and unusual words in the title. (Think The Mysterious Benedict Society  and  The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place).  

2. They win awards for a reason. Did you ever notice those shiny medal stickers on some book covers?  There are a ton of awards a book can win.  You can click on the specific award to the right of this webpage to see some winners.  The big ones are the Michael L. Printz awards, for “literary merit”.  You can’t really go wrong with these books!  Another biggie is the National Book Award.  Personally, I find these winners to be a little bit darker than other awards-some of them may cover difficult subjects, but are well worth the time.  The ALA “Best Book” awards are some of my favorites; they’re chosen by the American Library Association every year.  Other favorites of mine? The Coretta Scott King award-winners, for authors of African descent, the Pura Belpré awards, for outstanding works written by Latino/a authors, and the Jane Addams winners, for books promoting social justice and peace.  The Stonewall Book Award is given to amazing GLBT books, and the Alex awards are for books written for adults that have special appeal to the YA crowd.  If you’re trying something new, the award lists are a good place to start-you’ll be assured of the quality of writing and you’ll know that other people have also loved it.

3. Find ones like the books you already love.  There are some great websites out there that recommend new reads based on the ones you loved before.  Try typing your favorite book into these sites:

What Should I Read Next?

Your Next Read

Whichbook

4. Ask! Ask your librarian, the workers at the bookstore, your friends, your teachers.  I make a habit of asking everyone I meet what their favorite books is, and then trying to read them.  You never know who already loves your next new favorite book.

5. Try Something New. Explore a little! Every time I go to the library, I pick out some books that are on my To-Read list, and then one book that I’ve never heard of before, but that caught my eye.  I’ve found some great surprises that way!

6. Keep Track. Have you heard of Goodreads? It’s a great website where you can keep track (and rate) books you’ve read and the ones you want to read.  After you rate a few, it will start making recommendations for you.  Also, you can befriend people, so you can see what they are reading.  You can look me up and friend me, if you’d like!

7. You Don’t Have to Keep Reading if You Hate It. I mean that.  Some books, no matter how many awards they’ve won or who loves them, just aren’t going to be for you.  And that’s totally ok!  Don’t force it.  My rule is: read as many pages as your age.  If you still hate it, it’s ok to quit.  So, if I don’t love something in 28 pages, I can be done with it and not feel the least bit guilty.

Friends, I hope this list helps you find your new favorite book! Do you have any other tips on how to find great books?  I’d love to hear them!

Happy Reading!

Shine by Lauren Myracle

“I closed the crawl space door.  I got to my feet and brushed myself off.  My chest was tight, but I looked at the blue sky, clear and pale above the tree line, and said out loud, ‘Fine, I’ll do it.’ I would speak for Patrick.  I’d look straight into the ugliness and find out who hurt him, and when I did, I’d yell it from the mountaintop.”

Patrick Truman was brutalized: beaten with a baseball bat, tied up, and abandoned with the nozzle of a gas pump in his mouth.  He lies unconscious in a North Carolina hospital, and police are treating his case as a hate crime, due in part to the slurs left scrawled on his chest in blood.  When it looks like the blame is going to be pinned on a drunken truckload of out-of-towners, Cat takes matters into her own hands.  She, for one, isn’t so sure; she suspects one of the local “redneck posse” is behind the crime.    Either way, she is determined to bring justice to her friend, and begins probing the town of Black Creek for its secrets.

It isn’t very often that I find a book that makes me cry on the subway, but this one certainly did it.  Lauren Myracle gives us a southern small town simmering with tension, secrets, and fierce family loyalties.  There is poverty; meth and alcoholism contribute to the futureless drifting of the town’s youth, but there are also deep wells of grace and redemption.  Furthermore, it’s a darn good mystery, something that I think is all too rare in the young adult literary world.  Better still, Myracle does not (this is not really a spoiler, I promise) just end the book with “oh, it was the drunk rednecks who did it”.  She could have, of course, but it would be doing something similar to anyone who has ever attributed the actions of an individual to that of a broader group.  In short, she doesn’t bend to prejudice.

So we have sixteen-year-old Cat, a broken, bleeding Patrick, and a mess of lies and a whole town of people who are short on hope, in the hands of a very gifted storyteller.  This is my final conference book, and I chose it because 1) It is a mystery and 2) Patrick has been out for ages, and there are those who accept and love him, and those who do not.  That’s pretty much how it goes down when a person comes out.  I have to say, this book was one of the hardest I’ve ever read, but also one of the ones that I feel needs to be read, not just by queer teens, but by everyone.

Happy Reading!  (All right, so there are parts in it that will probably make you happy, but also some parts that might make you want to throw up, but I promise, it’s worth it.)

Author’s website: http://www.laurenmyracle.com/

Myracle, Lauren.  Shine. New York: Abrams, 2011. 359 pp.  Ages 16 and up.  (If you’re using this for a classroom, be prepared to defend this book; the language is pretty rough and there’s drug abuse, violence, and a brief instance of sexual abuse.  That said, I think it is absolutely worth the attempt.)

If you liked this book, you might want to try Sprout by Dale Peck, or The Christopher Killer by Alane Ferguson.

Also, you might have noticed I listed this book as a National Book Award finalist; and it was, for two days.  The awards committee messed up royally, offered Myracle the award, and then said they made a mistake.  She handled the fiasco with grace, and I’m including the tag as a sign of respect.

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

“When the day came, Eduardo received the newborn into his hands as though it were his own child.  His eyes blurred as he laid it in a crib and reached for the needle that would blunt its intelligence.

‘Don’t fix that one,’ said Lisa, hastily catching his arm. ‘It’s a Matteo Alacran.  They’re always left intact.'”

Matteo is a clone, formed from human DNA and raised in the womb of a cow.  Unlike other clones, though, his intelligence is not surgically limited: for a clone, he’s very fortunate, enjoying all the privileges of a real human, such as an education.  This is because he’s the special clone of El Patron, the ancient lord of the country Opium.  Opium lies between the United States and the former country of Mexico: a vast tract of poppies, eejits (computer-chipped slaves who work the fields), a set of terrifying bodyguards, and the powerful family of El Patron.

Clones, as Matteo slowly learns, are considered sub-human, monstrous, and only good for one thing: growing transplantable organs.  As El Patron’s body ages and begins to deteriorate, Matteo’s organs will be harvested, and given to El Patron.  This process has been repeated many times in the past, allowing El Patron to reach the age of 148.  If Matt wants to live past his preteen years, he’s got to escape.  Furthermore, if there is any hope for justice for the thousand of enslaved eejit workers, who are all captured illegal immigrants, Matt must face the sinister system that brought him into existence.

This near-future science fiction deals with issues of illegal immigration, drug empires, cloning, and what constitutes being a human.  The action builds steadily, and spans various settings and many years, but never feels drawn-out or stretched.  Nancy Farmer is also a genius at creating seemingly-impossible-to-escape situations, and then magically unraveling them with a plausible, but unexpected solution.  Especially appealing for me is Matt’s gradual realization of the implications of being a clone: readers watch him develop a full consciousness of his identity throughout the book.  This is great writing, friends!

I should mention that Farmer has already written two other Newbery Honor books, and they are also incredible.  When I was ten, my best friend handed me her copy of The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, also written by Farmer.  It’s one of those books I remember with startling clarity, because it shocked my childish brain, which until that point was only accustomed to the Bobbsey Twins  and The Baby-sitters Club series, or perhaps the occasional abridged classic.  (Does anyone remember the illustrated and abridged Hound of the Baskervilles?)  Anyway, that was an amazing book, and this one is too!  It won the National Book Award, the Newbery Honor, and the Printz Honor, and it is an ALA Best Book, too!  The front cover sparkles with all the medals, and the text inside will blow your mind.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.nancyfarmerwebsite.com

Farmer, Nancy. The House of the Scorpion. New York: Simon Pulse, 2002.  380 pp.  Ages 11 and up.