Friday, December 30, 2011

The Witch-queen of Swampsea

by Franny Billingsley
National Book Award finalist 2011

Set in turn-of-the-century England, Chime recounts the story of teenage Briony, a self-effacing girl who claims to be a witch. In the first few sentences of the novel, she claims also to be a murderer, blaming herself for the swamp sickness that has claimed the lives of numerous townspeople, as well as the death of her step-mother. Her twin sister, Rose, who appears to be autistic but is never described as such, is also a major cause of Briony's self-loathing, as the girl again blames herself for her sister's condition. Due to the great amount of self-hatred depicted, I a number of people at my book club had difficulty slogging through this book, but it definitely pays off in the end.

While this novel definitely has elements of fantasy with various swamp spirits playing key roles in the plot, it often doesn't read like a fantasy novel, leaving several of my colleagues confused as to whether Briony was hallucinating or actually experiencing the various events involving the spirits. This uncertainty is probably the only qualm I had with the book, overall. The prose is usually rather elegant, indicative of Briony's class and her love of writing, and the story blends fantastic elements with reality rather well. The love interest, Eldric, is quite likeable, as are Rose and Briony. But, despite all its positive factors, Chime just didn't stick with me. I may well read it again someday, but I found myself really having to cull through my memory just to write this short review, and I know a friend of mine felt the same way.

Of the finalists for the National Book Award, this and Okay for Now are definitely my preferred titles; however, none of the nominees really jumped out at me as titles that will become canonized. Time will tell, I suppose.

Grade: B+

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Luke Aaluk's School Days

My Name Is Not Easy
by Debby Dahl Edwardson
National Book Award finalist 2011

In the 1960's, an Inupiaq (Eskimo) boy called Luke, whose real name is too difficult to for non-Inupiaq to pronounce, is sent to a Catholic boarding school, along with his two younger brothers, to complete his education. The majority of the students are other Inupiaq kids and kids from the Athabascan tribe, and the two groups do not get along. Speaking their tribal languages is forbidden, and the boys find it difficult to live under the guidelines imposed by the strict Catholic faculty.

While the subject matter is interesting, primarily because there is little fiction pertaining to Native Alaskan matters, and I certainly learned a decent amount about various real-life incidents like the Duck-In and iondine-131 testing among students, I found the writing to be distracting and a bit sloppy. At the beginning of each chapter, Ms. Edwardson would note the character upon whom the chapter would focus, but the POV for specific characters would shift throughout the book. For example, the majority of Luke-focused chapters would be written in first-person through his perspective; however, near the end of the book a clearly marked Luke chapter is written in third-person for no apparent reason. This happens with a few other characters, as well.

Also, since there's no over-arching plot, the book reads more like a series of school vignettes. Unfortunately, this has a negative effect upon readers' emotional connection to the characters, so when dramatic events take place, such events did not have the impact they might have had with a better writer.

My Name Is Not Easy is the second National Book Award finalist that I have had qualms about. It, and the previously reviewed Inside Out and Back Again both seem, to me at least, to have been nominated because of their diverse subject matter alone, and not because of the strength of their writing or expected longevity.

Grade: B-