Sunday, 27 November 2011

Review: Chime, by Franny Billingsley

Because Franny's Billingsley's National Book Award short-listed novel Chime is so much about it's narrator's voice and psychology, it's probably best to begin at the beginning:

I've confessed to everything and I'd like to be hanged.

Now, if you please.

Most people on trial for their lives don't generally plead for justice to be done. But Briony Larkin is not your run-of-the-mill heroine.

The novel opens in the aftermath of the death of Briony's beloved Stepmother, under mysterious circumstances. Everyone thinks she committed suicide, but Briony thinks she knows better. Briony lives to take care of her mentally unstable twin sister Rose. She believes herself a witch (a hanging offence in the Swampsea) and so keeps herself away from the swamp and the Old Ones who live there, in order to keep her powers and her anger and jealousy under control.

As I said in beginning, a lot of this novel is based on Briony's psychology: her guilt for her sister's condition, her lack of love for those around her, her early admitted and deep-seated belief that she is truly wicked, only barely holding her dangerous powers in check.

The story really begins when Eldric, a college-aged fellow from London comes to the Swampsea.  His father has come to the village to drain the swamp in order to develop the land; the railroad is finally coming to town (the setting is early twentieth century, with references to switch on lights and motor cars).  I was worried at first by descriptions of "golden, electric Eldric", afraid he would turn out to be yet another too-good-to-be-true hero, but Eldric, and his relationship with Briony, is much, much more interesting than that.  Eldric has his faults: a certain lack of direction, a rebellious nature, but he's just what Briony needs.  He makes it possible for her to begin looking at the world and herself somewhat differently.

This is a novel of twists and turns, discoveries about one's self and others and stories and the fickleness of memory and the ways in which all these things work together to create some notion of a self.  And I don't know that I want to say too much more about the plot, because one of the distinct joys of this novel is watching Briony's narrative unfold, as she unpicks the tapestry of her life.

I really have only good things to say about this novel.  The voice, characterization, and plotting are strong and sure.  As a reader, I always felt I was in good hands, no matter what might happen next.  The novel goes to some very dark places, but I was happy to follow Briony and Billingsley anywhere.

I will also note that the prose is delectable, rich, rhythmic, and original, especially in its evocations of the swamp.

Other notes:

I mentioned earlier that this novel was short-listed for the 2011 National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category.  There was an unfortunate bit of controversy at the beginning, as Lauren Myracle's Shine was inadvertently named as a short-listed title.  The judges apparently meant to nominate this book instead.  Altogether, it was a mess.  But that was how I first came across this book.

I find the National Book awards are a good go-to for finding good books to read.  Previous years' nominees included Laini Taylor's Lips Touch: Three Times, which I have raved about elsewhere, and Canadian Martine Leavitt's Keturah and Lord Death, which is also fantastical and fantastic.

Book design: I must say I think the novel is not well-served by its cover (the UK edition forgoes the choker but plays up the sparkles).  The novel is both older and more sophisticated than the cover might have you believe.  I see the UK paperback edition is going for a rather different look.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Third Draft!

This afternoon, I finished the longhand version of the third draft of my WIP novel.  Now I just need to type it up, making more changes as I go.  Then, I need to do a pretty hardcore line-by-line edit (in which I hack and slash out every unnecessary adverb), and then press-gang some family and friends into reading the thing and giving me feedback (that's right, Tim, I'm looking at you).

And then, I think it might be time to start working on that query letter and synopsis.

So far, looking at this draft, it feels yet tighter and more polished than the second draft was, though the big changes were made in that draft.  I didn't make any plot changes this time.  Except for a section in the middle of the novel that was restructured and had a chunk of plot substituted in, I was always pretty happy with the novel structurally.  I'm a big planner and outliner, so I tend to figure plot structure out rather earlier than some writers, perhaps.  I'm like this with my academic writing, too.  I can't really start until I actually know where I'm going and what I want to say.  Otherwise, I'm hopelessly lost.

The other interesting thing I noticed this time around was that toward the end of working on the end of the second draft, I was seriously considering changing the ending.  It felt uncomfortable for me and I even tried rewriting the last chapter.  But I stopped halfway through.  It didn't feel right to change it.  And this time, no qualms.  The ending the novel has always had felt perfectly right and it stayed, with very few changes.  Go figure.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Day-Tripping Again: Salisbury

If it seems like we've been doing a lot of travelling, it's partly because we have BritRail passes and we need to use up a set number of travelling days.  We used up one day today by heading down to Salisbury, which takes less than two hours to reach by train.  We were lucky and had a comfortable and actually reasonably sunny day for travel.

First, we went to the famous cathedral, which boasts a very tall spire, the tallest in England, I think.

Then, we decided to hike the two miles north to Old Sarum, the site of the original motte and bailey castle and first cathedral.  It was used by William the Conqueror and Henry II kept Eleanor of Aquitaine prisoner there for awhile.  It was already a ruin by the time of Henry VIII, so he allowed all the good building stone to be hauled away.  Sadly, there isn't a whole lot left, but it's really cool to see.  The foundations of the first cathedral are also visible, at least in part.
Modern-day bridge over palisade.

Cathedral remains
It should have taken us about 45 minutes to walk up to Old Sarum.  The first part was lovely, on a path along the River Avon (which is really shallow in Salisbury).  Then we discovered that the course was not nearly so well signed as the friendly woman at the Tourist Information office had assured us.  We took two unanticipated detours on our way up.  We took the bus back to Salisbury.

However, the hiking was worth it for the fabulous views of the Wiltshire countryside.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Life in Britain: Transportation

I don't know if this is exactly going to be a series, but I thought that since I had been living in Britain (or at least, to be specific, Oxford) for just over two months now, I would try to comment on some of the quirky or interesting things that have come up.

I'll begin with a vignette from last night to explain why I've chosen this particular topic to begin with.  Tim and I and an English grad student friend all went to the Magdalen Film Society's showing of The Maltese Falcon.  As my friend and I were locking up our bikes, which we discovered were exactly the same make and model, we had a brief discussion about what bike paraphernalia it is wise to leave with one's bike.  For instance, I've made a policy of leaving my helmet with my bike, because it was never stolen all of last year when I biked in to work on campus everyday.  Hardly anyone leaves their helmets with their bikes here for fear of thievery.  My friend also said that she had been told to take her lights with her.

(Interesting point: if you are biking at night, you must have front and back lights or you may have to pay the police a fine - This makes sense, since the roads will almost always be clear here, so cycling all year round is much easier than in Saskatoon, where the roads are covered in snow for a good chunk of the year.  Also, with the time change, it starts getting dark around 4:00 pm here!  You definitely need lights on your bike). 

My lights went missing a couple weeks ago, but I figured at the time that they had possibly fallen off, or maybe been stolen and if so - in my innocence, I assumed this would be a one-time thing.  So again, I was not that concerned.  But what should we discover on leaving the theatre?  Our back lights were gone.  Alas.  So now I am quite seriously considering taking my lights with me from now on.  (Why would someone steal bike lights?  Do they have resale value?)

Other points on cycling in Oxford.  They profusion of bike lanes and bike paths and the relative flatness of the terrain, really make getting around on a bike very simple.  I think it has great advantage over driving a car around town (unless one has a family, or needs to haul stuff around), because you don't need to worry about one-way streets and you can't really get stuck in gridlock.  Oh, the joy of being able to whiz up the bike lane past the backed up cars during rush hour, as they all wait patiently to enter the roundabout up ahead.  Schadenfreude!

Also, the bus is a wee bit pricey here and it would take about an hour to walk down to central Oxford from where we are, so a bike is a great thing to have.  I can get down to the libraries, my college, and the English Faculty in approximately 15 minutes, depending on how lucky I am with traffic lights.

My pet peeve re: other cyclists.  Slow cyclists, especially cyclists who are slow because they are TEXTING!  a) This must be very dangerous and b) if I am hemmed in by cars on my right, so that I can't pass, then I am stuck behind a person who is toodling along without a care for no other reason but that they must see what their friend has written.  This has only happened a couple times, but it raises my ire, let me tell you.

Incidentally, it surprising how easily one can get used to cycling on the "wrong" side of the road.  It really feels quite natural, except that I now have right turns and left turns slightly mixed up in my head.  At home, right turns were easy; now you must wait for a great deal of oncoming traffic.  It seems a bit strange.

As for relations with other vehicles, the cars generally do seem to keep a good eye out for cyclists, and I haven't ever been in peril of being squashed by anyone making a left turn into me.  On the other hand, Tim was hit - very softly - by a car who did make a left turn into him, even though he was just minding his business in the bike lane.  The driver somehow managed to very lightly hit the back of his wheel.  And then drove off after making sure he wasn't injured.  But the damage was done.  The wheel had to be replaced and the necessary expenditure made.

As for being a pedestrian, I've discovered that one tends to cross at corners at controlled intersections (though often the cross walk can be set back a ways from the corner - we noticed this especially in Edinburgh).  However, you don't generally seem to cross at corners otherwise, but at random "islands of safety" set up in the road.  And even then, the cars never stop for you.  You must make your dash very wisely.  I've only found one actual crosswalk in this city, at which the cars do stop for poor, lowly pedestrians.  And that's it.

One last note about pedestrians.  While I sympathize with their plight of not having right of way, I also have an axe to grind with the ones who clog up the designated bike paths.  Sigh.

As for trains, they are uniformly wonderful.  Except when they are full and one can't get a seat.

Future topics of discussion include: food and grocery stores and the weather.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Recent Travels, Part II: York and Edinburgh

Administrative stuff:

1)  A lovely friend reminded me yesterday that the original settings for this blog did not allow for comments from non Blogger members.  I have since changed this because, goodness gracious me, I definitely do not want to discourage commenting.  So, please feel free, if you are so moved, to comment.

2)  You will see new pages at the top of the blog.  I thought I would write up a few explanatory things in case someone who does not, in fact, know me in real life stumbles upon this...  Also, if for some reason you are curious about my research or my novel, there's some information on both of those items.

But, back to travelling!

We got back from London on the Sunday and on Wednesday, November 9th, we were off again, a a five-day extravaganza to the North, in celebration of our ten-year anniversary (yes, we were absolute babies when we started dating!).  Luckily, there is a pretty direct train route from Oxford to York, which is nice, because for some points north, you have to route through London first, which takes extra time.

Our apartment-hotel was close to the train station and the Ouse, so it was a very good jumping off point for touring.  We meandered through the touristy, but delightful shopping streets and medieval avenues first thing, not bothering to follow a map because you can almost always orient yourself by looking for the towers of York Minster (which is the largest Gothic Cathedral north of the Alps by the way and is filled with medieval stained glass that was hidden away in Yorkshire country houses during World War II to keep it safe because it is so precious).

We walked through the Minster, which was larger and grander than I had remembered it being.  We also took a hike up the central tower.  They are very cautious at the Minster and have a long list of ailments that bar one from climbing the 275 steep, narrow, and winding steps up the tower.  If you have ever done the 500 or so steps up to the top of St. Paul's in London, however, this tower does not seem nearly so daunting.  And you can get some fabulous views from the top...

On a clear day, you can see the cooling towers of a nearby nuclear plant, but alas, we had a misty evening.

Next day, we toured through the Undercroft museum at the Minster and walked down the Shambles, a medieval street that was once a meat market.  We also took a hike along a chunk of the remaining medieval city wall.

And then it was back on the train to Edinburgh.  I love taking the train up to Scotland.  For one thing, it makes me feel like Harry Potter on the Hogwart's Express, and for another, it's great fun to watch the increasing proliferation of sheep (which we just don't have at home in Saskatchewan) and to watch the hills start to rear up and to see the views of the North Sea.  If you are not from Saskatchewan, you must know that it is very flat and very land-locked, so hills and sea views are rather exciting.

The first day, we settled into our Edinburgh apartment-hotel, which was right on the Royal Mile (we could hear lots of carousing and bag-piping from the street below).  While in Edinburgh, we visited the University of Edinburgh, which has some lovely buildings...
We also were lucky to find the Palace of Holyroodhouse open to visitors.  Tim wishes he had visited before reading Walter Scott's Waverley because Bonnie Prince Charlie throws a ball in the Great Gallery at Holyroodhouse!  Well, now I will know how to picture it when I read the novel.  We also toured the beautifully ruined Holyrood Abbey, which is right beside the palace.
We also visited the National Gallery of Scotland, where I got to see the original portrait that graces my copy of Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey (which I had finished just a couple days before).  This is a small but really nice gallery, with a surprising number of paintings by Dutch masters.  We also ventured into the Georgian New Town, which feels much more like Bath or London that the Old Town up on the hill does.

Our anniversary itself we celebrated by not cooking (yay!) but eating tasty leftovers instead.  There was also camembert and a sparkling rose involved.  It was lovely.

And then it was back to Oxford, and back to work for me.  (The reality and surreality of going to school at Oxford hit me with renewed vigour on returning to my regular pursuits of reading in the Bodleian and wandering along Broad St.  Amazing what a few days away will do.)

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Recent Travels, Part I: London

Well, now that I've got an essay out of the way, I can get back to blogging properly for awhile, I hope.

I've managed to cover a goodly chunk of the UK this month.  First off, I was in London November 4-6 for the purpose of attending the Reimaging the Brontes conference put on by the University of Warwick and hosted at the Senate House Library of University College, London.  What a lovely, and gigantic building!  I didn't take a picture, alas.

Our lovely friend "London Katherine" kindly hosted me in her student flat and we, along with another visiting friend, did a nice walk along the Thames on Friday night and then explored Spitalfields Market on Sunday morning.  I got a sweater with cats on it.

Parliament at night
 The conference itself was really great, though I was mentally exhausted by the end of it and had a giant nap after dinner.  I also discovered that there is apparently much more to be said about the Bronte juvenilia, which makes me a happy academic, since this is what the first chapter of my dissertation is going to cover.

Also related to the Bronte juvenilia, a previously untraced and unpublished Charlotte Bronte manuscript has turned up and is going to be auctioned off by Sotheby's next month.  It's expected to fetch 200-300 k quid.  Yikes.  The Bronte Parsonage Museum Library has put out an appeal for funds, in order to make a bid for the manuscript, which is the previously missing second issue of Charlotte's The Young Men's Magazine.  These magazines were written in miniscule print and were very small, originally toy-soldier sized.  I really hope a library, preferably one in the UK gets this, because I would love to go have a look at it.  If it disappears into a private collection again, it would be much more difficult for scholars to get access to it.

On the Sunday, Tim came down on the train and we went to the John Martin: Apocalypse exhibition at the Tate Britain (which was a bit pricey, but worth it).  John Martin was often seen as a popular painter and wasn't necessarily taken seriously by the artistic establlishment for his blockbuster, sublime paintings of biblical and classical scenes, often of destruction.  He was better known for the innovations he made in the art of engraving.  The Brontes are known to have had at least 4 of his prints in the house, some rather large and therefore expensive.  Charlotte's visionary scenes and grand city-scapes could definitely have been inspired by his art.

John Martin - Belshazzar's Feast
We also visited the Natural History Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum and then we headed home.

Next up: our tenth anniversary trip to York and Edinburgh

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Still Alive

I'm still here but I've got my nose to the grindstone, as I research and start writing (soon) an essay for my supervisor for Friday (!).  I'm currently reading an article in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine from 1819 on a British mission to the Ashantee; I've been reading lots of Charlotte and Branwell Bronte's early writings; and I'm about to start such interesting books as Slavery and the Romantic Imagination and The Rise of the Colonial Novel.  Also, I am slightly saddned to report that having finished Charlotte Bronte's The Professor and Anne's Agnes Grey (which I actually really enjoyed - this novel doesn't always get great reports), I now have no Bronte novels left to be read.  Alas.

However, I still have 4+ volumes of early writings to get through, plus letters, plus poems.  That's something, isn't it?

Once this essay is done, I promise reports on my recent travel and one (possibly two) book review(s).  Also, commentary on British grocery stores, transportation, and weather.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Londonbound!; Northbound!; and Revision

I'm heading down to London today to take in a one-day (free!) conference on Reimagining the Brontes.  My supervisor and another Oxford English professor will be speaking, along with a number of other Bronte academics, some of whom I've read articles from in the past.  My lovely friend at LSE has kindly said I can bunk at her flat, which is great.

I'm also rather excited, as, I realized yesterday, this will be the first train trip in Britain I've tackled on my own and my first time propelling myself around the great metropolis by myself.  I've always been travelling with someone else when I've been in London previously.  I have this grand vision of myself roaming around the streets and parks solo.

I don't think I'll have a lot of time for roaming however, as the conference will take up almost all my Saturday.  But Tim's coming down on Sunday so we can do some sight-seeing.  There's a special John Martin exhibit on at the Tate Britain which I would like to see, as I know the Brontes were big fans of his apocalyptic paintings and engravings.

Also on the travel front, Tim and I have booked a little trip up north for our anniversary (our 10th!  Yikes!).  We're going to stay one night in York and three in Edinburgh.  We're hoping we can also pop into Durham to see the Cathedral and the Castle, but we'll see.  It will depend on train schedules and how much baggage we're hauling around.  I'm quite excited.  I really love both cities and Tim's never been to York.  Also, I will have fond literary memories of York, having now read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which begins there and involves magic being done to the Minster itself.

Also, on the revision front (and now this post and really jumping all over the place), my longhand third draft is now well over half done.  I'm getting very close to the exciting bits of the story, which may speed my pace up a bit.  However, except for when I was in a fog of writing and writing preparation the week last week, I've been really good about putting in my one hour a day of working on the book.  It's amazing how much you can get accomplished if you can just force yourself to put in some time every single day.