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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

For Whom the Bell Chimed

Screen shot 2011 10 16 at 5.18.12 PM 198x300 For Whom the Bell ChimedI keep starting to write about Chime. And then stopping.

(This is take 5.)

I’ve read a lot of books I really enjoyed thus far this year. And I’ve read a lot of really excellent books. Sometimes they’re even the same book.

But Chime was the first 2011 book that made me say wow, and a year later, it’s still making me say it. When I finished this (last October, having snagged a copy at a preview), I actually called up Sarah (who, I remind you, was still in the midst of her Printz term) and said, “I totally just read the 2012 Printz winner!” Sarah didn’t care, but I just kept babbling: I was giddy with the experience of reading Chime.

I don’t think I’m alone in my Chime love (6 starred reviews, NBA shortlist, and lots of generally great reviews). You can be sure the committee will be looking at this one (or, really, probably has looked, given the early pub date), and I would guess they’ll look pretty closely given the stars and the NBA nod.

Will it hold up?

I took the time to read Chime a second time, in part because I found myself saying in polite party conversation, “My money’s still on Chime,” and in part because I wanted to write something more substantive than “YAY CHIME LOVE AWESOME PRETTY WORDS.” (Takes 1-4.)

It held up.

Not perfectly—no book is perfect—but actually quite a lot of things were even better the second time around, when I could savor the language (since I already knew what would happen) and see that in addition to sounding good, there was some wonderful language play that parallels the story line (more on that in a moment). Some other things lost out on a second read: with more time to savor the language, it was easy to spot the clues (for lack of a better word), and sometimes they seemed a bit clumsy. Also, for all that I loved (LOVED) the world of Swampsea, there were some details that didn’t add up the second time around (where are all the other teen girls?). Of course, the book is so much about what Briony sees (doesn’t see), and she is so unreliable a narrator, that these flaws might instead be additional clues into how Briony sees (is blind to) the world. In fact, I would be very happy to be convinced that all of these flaws are in fact thanks to Briony’s limited perspective and thus not actually flaws at all.

So let’s look at the good:

Unreliable narrator FTW!

The unreliable narrator is a delicate thing, and the balance between being absorbed by the unreliability and being annoyed by it or finding it contrived is pretty narrow. Briony is delicious as a narrator who cannot be trusted. She’s so bright and so aware of so many things, and so very witty, and yet so incredibly stubborn and blind to the truth that is practically beating her over the head. The reader should be suspicious from the very start: the discrepancy between her actions and her words and the recurrence of expressions like “I may be wicked but I’m not bad” are both tells, but the truth is such a shifty thing here. Briony’s evidence for her wickedness seems quite compelling, even as the evidence for her goodness mounts, and it’s almost painful watching how her every attempt to do good (saving Mr. Drury, treating with the Boggy Mun about Rose and the swamp cough) makes things even worse, and how she uses that to fuel her self-hatred.

The world—a vaguely alternate England, where the creatures of folklore and fable are really real and the tensions of industrialization threaten not only agrarian human lives but also these others—is full of small delights, particularly the mythology (is it mythology if it’s real?). There is not one moment of exposition: reveals come in dribs and drabs through Briony’s thoughts. The closest thing to exposition might be the description of the dark muse, but only on the second read, when (mild spoiler alert) I knew dark muses were important to know about.

But the real strength here is the language. I might be a little of a sucker for language, so when it’s good, I tend to get excited. I loved the voice and the word choices on the first read, but I noticed additional details on the second read, particularly some layering of images and language and the abovementioned parallels.

Briony is always the narrator, but she slips from first person to second and third person. On the surface, this makes the voice compelling (it’s not static!), but also seems vaguely crazy. When you start looking closely at all the ways Briony thinks about herself that are actually Stepmother’s words, thoughts, or influences, Briony’s tendency to think of herself at a remove becomes a clue to how much she does not know herself, and how fractured her mind might be. She employs second person most often when she speaks of the bad things, which might indicate that she is actually parroting Stepmother.

Briony speaks in circles and spirals: the double riff on “The House that Jack Built”, but also the way language is used and repeated; the way casual, almost stream-of-consciousness thoughts (Eldric as a boy-man, the leonine quality of his hair) become motifs; and the ways Briony twists language to suit her purposes, just as she has been twisted by the words of others. The circle motif also parallels the novel’s structure (which circles in on itself from the trial to the past and back again, with spirals of reason and thought surrounding the deeper past, particularly Stepmother).

This is rich, complex stuff, and it’s often stunning on a sentence-by-sentence level too.

I could go on (and on, and on). If we were at a table together (say, a table in a locked room in a hotel in Dallas?), I’d be pounding the table in my excitement and brandishing my messy pages of notes and my much flagged copy of Chime at you. But I think you’ve gotten the point. This is one of the strongest contendas of 2011, and I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t get a nod (even if it’s a silver one) come January. What say you? Has the swamp cough rotted my brain, or am I officially the winner of the guess-the-Printz prize?

Pub details: Dial March 2011; reviewed from final copy

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything (except current events, because she’s too busy reading YA literature to follow the news). Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    I loved CHIME. Exactly what you said.

  2. I haven’t heard of it, but its going on my To Read list!

  3. Betsy says:

    I’m a Chime fan myself! Definitely stands up to a reread. It was also a Boston Globe-Hornbook Honor this year. I love what it says about the power of words/writing in creating and understanding our selves. It’s such a nice “older” version of Folk Keeper–and yet totally different.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Betsy– Whoops! I got so caught up in the Boston Globe-Horn Book winners that I forgot all about the honors!

      Tess, I think it’s repeated because it’s part of the damage that’s been done to Briony. She’s really broken, emotionally, and the power of words are another recurring motif: the words Briony uses, the words Stepmother used and their power, and the significance (in at least two different ways) of Briony’s own story telling.

      Oh! I didn’t even talk about the sexy love in my review, which is also why we need to really understand Briony’s fractured relationship with herself and everyone who cares about her. The romance is even more powerful because she’s so broken and so falling in love is something truly freeing and truly terrifying (and kinda hot, without being graphic). I really could just go on and on. It might just not be the book for you, but I would consider giving it a second go, given that the consensus is definitely that this book is going places.

      Ed, that passage is a particularly lovely example. I actually have been avoiding reading everyone else’s reviews because I wanted to make sure that even if I failed to say anything new, I at least said it for myself! Now I get to check out the praises being sung elsewhere in more detail. And I knew I couldn’t really be the first to predict this one– but I want it ON RECORD that I made the call last October. That’s gotta count for something!

  4. tess says:

    I feel like I’m alone in not liking this book at all. I couldn’t even finish it. (Maybe that’s the problem? I guess I should.) She kept repeating how much she hated herself. I mean, I get that you hate yourself, that’s cool. But I got it the first time. I don’t need to hear it repeated 5 times in a chapter.

  5. Brenda Kahn says:

    I finally got around to reading this one – with my ears. I usually have to read stories told by unreliable narrators with my ears. I adored this book and chastised myself to taking so long to get to it. I’m definitely going to reread this one for exactly the same reason why you love it – the language is gorgeous and the humor is quite dry and delightful. So thrilled it’s a National Book Finalist and agree that the Printz committee should be all over it.

    brenda

  6. Angela Carstensen says:

    I love this book. It was one of my student bookgroup’s summer reads. Sadly, they did not love it as much. Still trying to convince more of them to finish it. I do think it takes a while to acclimate to the setting, the situation, the language, and there’s a reason for that. That’s what I love — there’s a reason why everything is not clear along the way.

  7. Mark Flowers says:

    Okay – I’m going to at least TRY to reread this one, because the first time through it bored me out of my skull. I would read a few pages, try to get into it, and find myself wondering what other books I could be reading instead. I think I read 3 or 4 books all while trying to make my way through this one. But apparently it’s great – so I’ll give it another go.

  8. Mark Flowers says:

    “Some other things lost out on a second read: with more time to savor the language, it was easy to spot the clues (for lack of a better word), and sometimes they seemed a bit clumsy”

    Also, for what’s it’s worth – I just looked by at my Goodreads review, and I seem to have caught the clumsiness of the “clues” the first time around (I referred to it as “overly-obvious foreshadowing”).

  9. Ed Spicer says:

    Karen,

    Here is what I wrote for my MRJ review back in May:

    Billingsley, Franny. (2011). Chime. New York: Random House/Dial. 368 pp. ISBN 978-0-8037-3552-1 (Hardcover) $17.99.

    Looking for the next Printz winner? The odds are good that this is the one! Billingsley has already garnered multiple starred reviews and the buzz in the book world is steady in its adoration of Chime. Even before the plot, what strikes me about Chime is its language play:

    Dark and light, dark and light. That was the world. The world was like lace. Lace is dark and light. Stepmother wore lace. Leanne wore lace.
    Leanne and Eldric, dark and light.
    When we think of lace, we think of white, but without the dark, the in-between bits, there’d be nothing to look at.
    Dark and light.
    Bones are hollow. Bones are webbed with lace.
    Anesthesia, Dr. Rannigan!
    Bones can hurt—how they can hurt!
    Take a hand, crush it slo-o-o-o-w-ly, splinter the bones, crumble the lace, squish away the negative space. (p. 202)

    I wish space permitted me to continue this section because it continues and adds to the mythological feel readers take away from this powerful book. This passage is also just one of MANY similar passages in which repetition and metaphor chime away. Briony’s voice is absolutely unique and thrilling!

  10. Ed Spicer says:

    Karyn, Karyn, Karyn

    It has been too long.

  11. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    One of the things I really adored about CHIME was the language and not knowing what was going on because of what Briony didn’t know/ didn’t want to admit to knowing.

    Here’s a question for you; CHIME has been mentioned over at HEAVY MEDAL. I see this as older than Newbery, unless you go with the “if even one 14 year old is interested in reading it, it counts” theory. Thoughts?

  12. Sarah J says:

    Oookay, so I know that popularity is not part of the criteria but appeal is–or sort of is. As a school librarian, I’ve watched Chime just SIT for several months, despite its excellent cover. When it does get checked out, it’s returned either a) the next day or b) renewed several times as the reader slogs through it. A more accessible novel with a similarly tormented protagonist is Plain Kate. That said, I understand everyone’s love of the writing, and this, apparently, is the hallmark of “quality” so crucial for a Printz nominee or winner. But this is quality writing in the vein of Annie Proulx or Cormac McCarthy- the convoluted, esoteric sentences and plot structure that critics value in postmodern writing (remember ‘A Reader’s Manifesto’ by B.R. Myers?). Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think YA lit and postmodern go together very well. White Darkness (yawn – sits on the shelf). Jellicoe Road (I LOVED, but no YA circulation in my program). Chime.

  13. I just finished Chime this morning; I also adored it. The language is just so beautiful and playful (although I agree that it takes a little getting used to). Briony is a fascinating narrator, and I think you’re right that this is very likely to get a Printz nod come January.

    That being said, I agree with Mark about the clumsiness of the clues. I didn’t really mind because I was so enjoying the reading, but I had things basically figured out about half way in, and there were times when it was INCREDIBLY frustrating to watch Briony struggle with something that seemed so obvious to me.

  14. Ed Spicer says:

    Karyn

    My post was not an attempt to scoop; more of a “great minds” sort of post.

  15. Kate Coombs says:

    I had the same kind of wow experience when I read this book. The poetic language, the strong voice, and the setting were what hooked me most. It’s the kind of book that is so multidimensional and colorful that other books seem flat and drab by comparison. Okay, it’s not perfect, but it’s strong in sooo many ways. So yes, Printz Honor at the least!

  16. Sondy says:

    Along with so many of you, when I finished this book, I immediately pegged it as my first choice for the Printz.

    I had almost forgotten that at one point early in the story, I almost quit reading. I was annoyed with all her “I am wicked” talk. But I was quickly glad I hadn’t quit and found it so much more poignant when she began to realize she really wasn’t wicked. I do want to give this a reread. I think I caught quite a few clues in the first reading, but I’d like to see how it reads from the very beginning when I know what’s really going.

  17. Betsy says:

    I was really disappointed with Chime. I wanted to like it because I’ve read such glowing reviews, but I just didn’t care for the language. It just seemed to awkward to me. I like to read posts like this one, though because it makes me look at it in a different light. Still, it wasn’t my cup of tea.

  18. Wendy says:

    I didn’t think the resolution was meant to be a secret or a mystery to the reader; if you look at it that way, the plot isn’t obvious and the foreshadowing isn’t clumsy. The plot, then, is clear and the narrative is always moving in a definite direction. CHIME may not be based (strictly, anyway) on a particular classic ballad or fairy tale, but it lives in the same world; and Billingsley is too skilled an author to have left “too many” clues. Instead, the book has all the inevitability of any faerie story. To say that the resolution is obvious is, to me, almost as pointless as saying about a retelling of Beauty and the Beast “I knew from the beginning that eventually she’d fall in love with him and break the spell.”

  19. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Wendy, you put into words what I’d been trying to about the foreshadowing.

  20. Mark Flowers says:

    Wow. I just finished rereading this one – and what a huge difference. I’m not sure if it was the fact of rereading, or just being in a different mood or what, but I loved it this time. Maybe I should be posting this over on the post about baggage.

    Wendy – on rereading, I think I completely agree with you: the text is clearly designed to allow the reader to know the ending long before Briony does. My only qualm with that is that the ending then goes on a bit too long (in my opinion) and spells things out in more detail than is necessary – but that is a *very* niggling point.

    So – count me in with the Chime-lovers!

  21. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Mark, isn’t it amazing when a reread makes a different, positive reading? That happened last year (I forget what title) where the first read was “uhg” and the second was “wait, did someone switch the contents this is so different this time around.”

  22. Mark Flowers says:

    @ Liz – indeed. With the caveat that I don’t reread nearly as many books as I should, it hardly ever happens to me that I completely revise my opinion on a reread. Tweaks in one direction or the other, or crystalizations of *why* I feel the way I do are more common.

  23. KT Horning says:

    Hmmm, the thought of having to re-read Chime gives me hives because it was so hard for me to slog through the first time. And, yes, the language is beautiful, but a little of it would have gone a long way. As a reader, I found the writing style self-indulgent, and it was continually taking me out of the story because I was so aware of the author’s presence, which I found annoying and intrusive. I really, really wanted to be engaged because the characters and plot were interesting enough but the whole time I felt like I was wading through a knee-deep morass of unnecessary verbiage.

    I do think what the author did especially well was world building. The novel was so atmospheric, I almost had to wave fog away from the pages. I wanted to spend time in the book and get lost in the story. I just wish the author had not been in the same room the whole time.

  24. Mark Flowers says:

    @ KT – I swear, I didn’t want to reread it either, and I was specifically trying to find examples of what I didn’t like as I reread, and it just kept not happening. So, you might be surprised.

    On the other hand, even after my change of heart, there are other books I’d rather see win the Printz, and I would be very interested to see my first impressions vindicated, so if you have some great examples of overwriting, I’d like to see them. But if it’s going to give you hives, by all means, ignore me ;)

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      @Mark – Can you put your money where your mouth is (speaking of pulpy gangsters, albeit on a different post) and tell us you want to see take the gold?

  25. Mark Flowers says:

    @ Karyn:

    My list looks something like this:
    1) Everyone Sees the Ants
    2) Beauty Queens
    3) Isle of Blood
    4) Chime
    5) some book among: Okay for Now, Imaginary Girls, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, The Auslander

    The Auslander is a very dark horse that I don’t expect to see much from, and don’t honestly want to win the gold, but has a place in my heart because I reviewed it for VOYA and spent a lot of time with it. I’d be happy to see any of the others in any combination.

    Caveats:
    1) there are a *lot* of books I haven’t gotten to yet (Bronxwood, This Dark Endeaver, Life, A Monster Calls and more). I didn’t read my favorite book of last year (Vera Dietz) until late November – so I expect to have more to add to my list soon.
    2) some of my favorite books this year for teens are ineligible because they were published for adults (Vietnamerica, Among Others, Ten Thousand Saints, After the Golden Age, Ghosts by Gaslight)
    3) I’ve read practically no YA non-fiction this year

  26. Karyn Silverman says:

    @Mark, I’m looking all over for The Auslander and it looks like maybe it never actually pubbed here, although it was scheduled to do so? Nothing on Bloomsbury’s U.S. site, and searching only turns up U.K. editions. I’m having trouble with Books in Print from home, so I’ll check there tomorrow. If you know anything about the pub details, let us know.

  27. Mark Flowers says:

    Weird. I’ve got a copy in my library – and we don’t (ordinarily) buy imports. Baker and Taylor says it was published on 8/16/11 which sounds about right. Don’t know why Bloomsbury doesn’t have any info on their site.

  28. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Karyn, Bloomsbury USA didn’t have it but Bloomsbury USA kids does: http://www.bloomsburykids.com/books/catalog/auslander_hc_331 I’m bumping Auslander up on my TBR list.

  29. Barb Gogan says:

    OK-This post and the comments made me finally read this, actually listen to this, since the library had an OverDrive copy I could immediately download.
    WOW!
    I am so glad I heard this because I don’t think I would have been able to appreciate the gorgeous language the way it deserves.
    Also, I think someone may ‘hear’ the author intruding because Briony is the author in the sense that she’s a writer and narrates as a writer.
    Thank you everyone for this discussion.

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