Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

The Chimes Smaill

2015. Sceptre. Hardcover. 291 pages.

In a nutshell:

In this novel’s dystopian London, music is at the core of everything. The government uses it in specific ways to control people, but it is also how information and directions are conveyed. The written word is forbidden. The ability to form and keep memories is difficult, and people keep collections of objects in order to hold on to what few memories they have.

Simon, a young teenager, travels from the country to London, following a melody his mother taught him to use in case of emergency. When the person he was sent to find refuses to help him, the stranded boy falls in with a crew of young scavengers who search the river and underground tunnels for precious nuggets of palladium to sell at the market. The crew’s leader, Lucien, has a mysterious past, and brings Simon into his plans for a better future.


The Chimes was on the Man Booker longlist last year and was a selection for my book club.


  • The author’s use of musical terms is immediately striking. An example:

Around one toll after Sext we set down in Romford, where the carter buys lunch of cheese, bread, dried blood sausages. He spears one, passes it to me. I eat presto, like I don’t remember my last meal. Then we are back on the A-road, straight as a viol string stretched under the sky. The further we go, the wider the road and the thicker the knots of people. And with each step closer the city’s music grows.

At times, I found this intriguing and clever. At its worst, the creativity of the writing could obscure what was happening in the plot.

  • The author also uses unusual spellings: mettle instead of metal, poliss instead of police, prentiss instead of apprentice, eletrick instead of electric. And different mashed together words for things: stickwrap is plastic, crosshouse is a church. I think the idea behind these alternative spellings and words is that they originate from the lack of the written word and lack of collective history, but I found it too precious for my tastes.


  • The way the author uses music in the world building is ambitious, but Smaill falls into the habit of most YA dystopian novels with all the ominous concepts described with proper nouns: Onestory, Allbreaking, the Pale, the Carillon, etc and of course the bad guys are just called the Order.
  • Various clues in the narrative indicate that there once was the world as we know it – with cars, computers and everything. So it’s completely baffling to me that this new society has medieval / Renaissance trappings. The people follow the canonical hours (Vespers, Matins), but without any religious connection. Their instruments are trumpet, viol, organ, etc. (no saxophones or drumsets, no jazz or blues). Their food is all along the lines described in the excerpt above, so I guess the foods of London’s diverse communities didn’t survive. Now, granted, this is not the first dystopian YA novel that has unexplained cultural regressions, but there was an affectedness here that bugged.

Plot / Characters

  • The plot is unevenly paced, with a lot of fast developments occurring toward the end that were not entirely connected to the novel’s somewhat slow build-up. The development of some characters has no payoff while other characters’ deaths don’t have the emotional weight the narrative aims for, due to character underdevelopment.
  • I did like that the romance between Lucien and Simon was handled naturally and without fanfare, but I can’t say that I found either of them all that interesting.

Overall: Though some credit is due to Smaill for originality, I found The Chimes to be a mixed-bag that I struggled to get through. That said, the other book club members liked it better than I did, so your mileage may vary.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Lizzy’s Literary Life – “. . . fault lines do appear about 2/3rds of the way through when the pace picks up. The denouement is rushed and I must say a tad convenient.”

The Speculative Scotsman – “Certainly, Smaill’s experience as a poet come through clearly in her perfectly poised prose. There’s a real richness to her images; a depth to her descriptions; her dialogue practically sparkles; and the structure of the whole thing sings.”

Teresa of Shelf Love – “This was one of the more original pieces of speculative fiction I’ve read in quite a while.”


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Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen2014. Graywolf Press. Paperback. 169 pages.

Notes on my reading:

Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen is a collection of prose poems. In preparation for writing this book, Rankine asked her friends to recall moments when racism interrupted their everyday lives. At first, friends demurred but in the following days, the stories came and kept coming. These stories are embedded throughout Citizen.

Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel,
you have already settled into your window seat on United
Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row.
The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are
our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s
response is barely audible – I see, she says. I’ll sit in the

The book also ruminates on news-making stories such as Hurricane Katrina and on news-making people such as Serena Williams, Trayvon Martin, and the Jena Six. One of the poems, called “Stop-and-Frisk” has a haunting refrain: “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”

I had some trouble digging into the more abstract sections – they may take some re-reading to fully ingest and I’ve been out of practice in reading poetry. The poems about the microaggressions were the most immediately accessible and memorable. I learned about the term microaggressions only in the past couple of years. For me, the concept and term has helped me understand the toll of everyday small prejudiced acts and words on people of color and other marginalized groups.

In my last review of Coates’ book Between the World and Me, I voiced some of my resignation about the common futility of trying to change closed minds. Jenny of Reading the End commented: “I try to frame it to myself this way: Even if I’m not changing hearts and minds (which I know that I am not), I am at least maybe showing the person that they will experience social consequences (even just minor ones, like being embarrassed for a minute) if they say their racist shit in public.” Citizen has several examples where the silence of a white witnessing friend can inflict as much pain as the person being racist. So while resigned to the intractability of some opinions, I should not be resigned to silence.

The words of Citizen are powerful and beautiful – the piece called “Making Room” is especially lovely. The words are interspersed with selected works of art as if in dialogue. Speaking of art, I was surprised that the piece shown on the cover was made in 1993. The hoodie is so freighted with meaning now; the provocative choice of this image definitely made me curious to read the book, especially when I recognized Claudia Rankine’s name from my English major days.

I read Citizen last September while also reading Coates’ Between the World and Me. I didn’t plan it that way, but it ended up being a great reading experience to go between these two different voices and perspectives on what it means to be black in America. I also saw Claudia Rankine read from Citizen at the National Book Festival last September, which helped me better get inside one of the more abstract poems.

After the tragic Charleston shootings last summer, the pastor of my church called on the congregation to enter into a season of prayer for racial justice and reconciliation, as a first step toward figuring out what we can do to be partners in reconciliation. We especially focused on the passage Isaiah 58:6,9b-12. At the end of summer, some of us gathered after church to share our thoughts and reflections. Being a bookish congregation, someone recommended Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and I recommended Coates’ and Rankine’s books. My pastor quoted Coates in a sermon later that fall, which was exciting. I’m not sure what will be the next step in this vision for our congregation, but I’m hopeful.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Books, Time and Silence – “Every word of Citizen, every image, beats you round the head saying ‘this is my world, this is my world’, challenging you to overlook it.”

Estella’s Revenge – “Moments that will jar and enlighten…render the reader uncomfortable, sorrowful, thankful.”

Runestone review by Deziree Brown – “Her relentless authenticity makes readers’ skin crawl. No matter how the reader identifies, Rankine forces the reader to encounter the shame and profiling black bodies endure through her use of simple language.”

Stefani Cox – “What I think is important though is that Rankine is saying all of this through prose poetry, which lets the rant flow and settle into your brain in little pieces that each deserve their own time to be processed.”


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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates Between The World and Me

2015. Spiegel & Grau. Ebook. 176 pages.


I first read Between the World and Me over a week last September, alternating it with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. I highlighted about 65 passages in Coates’ book, but didn’t know where to start with writing a review. At one point Coates says, “Poetry aims for an economy of truth . . . Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.” I would say that while it is not in the poetry genre, Between the World and Me is characterized by that economy and cold steel. The instinct of a reviewer to summarize and paraphrase is stymied by a feeling that doing so would inflict a terrible reduction on a work that is already so tight and focused. This book is a process for the reader. I could provide a quote from the end and it still might mean something, but it’s better if you’ve been put through the paces and understand what Coates means by the Dream, by the body, by the struggle, and that you know about West Baltimore, Howard University and the Mecca, PG County, New York City and Paris.

So. Today I picked up Between the World and Me and read it again, with little interruption, in one sitting. I highlighted a few more passages. I reached one of those quotes at the end, “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.” and just said “wow” out loud to myself. I finished the book, ate some dinner, fed the cat, and now I’m going to make this review happen.

Immersion is my best word for the experience – like slipping under the water and opening your eyes. Everything looks and sounds different once you get under the surface. This is not the narrative we’ve been told to accept. Instead, it’s the story of a little black boy who learns to resent the parade of nonviolent Civil Rights martyrs every February at school. Indeed, school partners with the streets as a form of damnation for the children of that boy’s city and other cities like it. And it’s an account of history where it’s understood that the American Civil War was a “mass slaughter”, not “a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor, and élan.” Under the surface, I see that a man can watch the smoke from the Twin Towers on 9/11 and not feel that some innocence was lost that day, because the news that still haunts him is that of a friend who was killed by a police officer a year before.

After the immersion, there’s a restlessness. There’s so much power in the words. I’m moved by them, but what do I do with them? It’s bracing, almost vindicating to read Coates’ instruction to his son not to spend his energies trying to make other people see their own participation in an unfair system. Life is too short. I know I’ve reached a point where actively trying to change other people’s minds on these issues just seems a ridiculous enterprise. So that leaves me with . . . me.

I hope you don’t mind a turn into the realm of personal anecdote: over ten years ago, I moved to a town in Prince George’s County, Maryland – or “PG County” as it’s also known. The day I moved into my apartment complex, I remember feeling embarrassed because my parents could sense the discomfort I felt in being in the minority for the first time in my life. Sure, there were other factors at play in my discomfort, namely being fresh out of college and trying to start the next phase in my life. But still, it was clear that my mind automatically saw my skin color as a barrier to belonging. And I felt bad, because I had failed to be color-blind, which I had implicitly understood was the goal for all white people. And I worked to dull that self-conscious awareness into a background white noise in my mind. I’m the only white person on this bus. Whatever. Who cares. I’m just a person on this bus.

While on this quest for color-blindness, I succeeded in learning very little about the experiences of my black neighbors. I lived in Prince George’s County for a number of years. No one ever warned me about PG County cops, the way Ta-Nehisi Coates was warned about them by his Howard University friends. One evening, I walked a few friends out of my apartment to find a swarm of police officers standing over a group of people sitting on the sidewalk with their hands on their heads. My friends razzed me about where I lived afterwards. And I never worried that I would someday be the one sitting on that sidewalk with my hands on my head. I didn’t worry that by walking nearby with my friends that I would be somehow associated with what was going on. I unconsciously rested in the knowledge that it was obvious that I didn’t belong in that scene, that I wasn’t part of it.

And that’s where Coates’ book comes in, and other writers like him, who show me that I am part of that scene. To be clear, my enlightenment is not his responsibility. This book wasn’t written for me. I’m grateful that he made this letter to his son available for all to read. For it is not a ridiculous enterprise to open my own mind, to enter into what Coates’ calls “the struggle”, which is – as I see it – the constant endeavor to create a true narrative of the world. I can tend to my own mind and actions, and not worry about others so much. I don’t mean that I will be silent on important matters and I hope that I will speak up and act when necessary. But I’m learning over and over that you can’t force open a closed mind.

Which means the people who really “need” to read this book, probably won’t. However, those who seek it out will be rewarded. I know that I will be thinking of this book for a long time.


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Let’s roll out these mini-reviews! I can do this!

Rogelio believe in yourself


The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley

This is the second book I’ve read by Kearsley and the first of her “time-slip” novels. I adored it for its classic, page-turning storytelling that had just the right levels of romance, suspense, and historical detail. I also just really appreciate Kearsley’s characterization. As with the main character in The Shadowy Horses, The Rose Garden‘s heroine Eva is likable and smart, and it was easy to become invested in what happened to her and her friends. It was one of my favorite novels that I read last year.

The Martian by Andy Weir

My cousin, who gave me this book, told me it was a fast, entertaining read. It was definitely entertaining, but some of the scientific and technical passages ensured that it wasn’t a fast read for my humanities-and-arts trained self. If you’ve read reviews of the book or movie, you know that Weir did extensive research and that most of the technology and science in his story is real or on the trajectory of the real (e.g. more reliable versions of current inventions.) So I understood why it got so in-depth and I did appreciate it for the verisimilitude it lent the story. Eventually, I stopped trying to understand everything, and settled for getting the gist and moving on.

For me, the story really got going once the people back on Earth became aware that astronaut Mark Watney was alive and stranded on Mars. I always looked forward to switching from Mark’s perspective to their perspective to see how they were interpreting and reacting to Mark’s movements and decisions. Not that I didn’t enjoy Mark’s sections, but it was sort of like when you show someone a show like Veronica Mars for the first time and you’re super excited to see how they react to the plot twists.

In any case, all the focus on the problem-solving ensured that any victories felt well-earned. I may have become a little teary toward the end of the book. I think I prefer the book to the movie, but I did like the movie as well.

Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher #1) by Kerry Greenwood

I’ve seen all three seasons of the TV show, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, so I figured I should give the source material a go. Cocaine Blues was a pleasant quick read, especially as there was the additional joy of comparing and contrasting it to the show. The meeting of Phryne and Dot goes very differently than in the show, for example. In the book, a desperate Dot is about to try and stab someone when Phryne intervenes. Phryne is also younger in the book, but in temperament and proclivities she is just about the same. I’m not sure if I’ll continue reading the series, as I’m generally terrible with keeping up with mystery series even when I enjoy their first installments.

Once Upon A Marquess (The Worth Saga #1) by Courtney Milan

I’m all caught up with Milan’s Brothers Sinister series, and was excited to try this first novel in her new series, but ultimately I was disappointed in it. I felt that the fun banter that appeared in her other novels was escalated to a too-precious, grating degree in this book. I read the excerpt for the next book in the series, and am hopeful that I’ll enjoy that one better.


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2015 in books and bookish community

Though I hope to eventually blog about all the books read in 2015 that I haven’t yet reviewed, here is a summary of my past year in reading:

Number of books read: 65

Longest book: Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch. 768 pages.

Shortest book: The Old Peabody Pew by Kate Douglas Wiggin. 60 pages.

Oldest book: The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. 11th century.

Newest book: Controlled Burn (Boston Fire #2) by Shannon Stacey. November 24, 2015.

I am listing my top fiction and nonfiction reads further below, but I also want to give a boost to the following two books I read in 2015 and that I think more people should read:

Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell [my review]

Intimate: An American Family Album by Paisley Rekdal [my review]

And though it was overall a very quality year for reading, here is a short list of my favorites from 2015:

Top three fiction:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley

The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

Top three nonfiction reads:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates

Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch

Wild by Cheryl Strayed


Bookish Community in 2015:

One of the most exciting bookish developments for 2015 was meeting with a group of bloggers (some from D.C. metro and some visiting) back in April and then starting a book club with the geographically proximate and all-around amazing Teresa and Leslie.

After attending the National Book Festival for the 11th time in September, my fellow faithful attender and friend Kristin and I decided we should have a Skype book club for our shared interest in nonfiction. (She lives in North Carolina). So far we have read one book, and plan to discuss another this month – Atul Gawande’s Better.

2016 promises more possibilities for connecting to people through reading. In December, after having supper with a group of people from church where the conversation was decidedly bookish, one of them emailed the group with Book Riot’s 2016 Read Harder challenge. I’m not sure I’ll complete all 24 tasks, but I’d certainly like to put a dent in it!





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Home for Christmas (and bookish gifts)

For all those who celebrate Christmas, I hope you had a lovely holiday! I certainly did. I drove up to Maine in the rain on December 23rd with my sister and brother-in-law and spent a lovely week and a half with my parents.

I ate my share of cookies, played lots of board games with the family, and on the Monday after Christmas, we took a day trip down to Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park. It was very cold but clear, which is why we had chosen that day. (Tuesday and Wednesday were forecasted – correctly – to be snowy.) The below picture is from the Wonderland trail on the “quiet side” of the island (though in the winter, the whole island is pretty quiet).


I also received quite a few books for Christmas, which was of course delightful. (It is true that I had composed my Christmas wishlist with not much else than books.)IMG_1342

I read all three of the above books on Christmas day:

Cat Getting Out of Bag and Other Observations: A Cat Book – by Jeffrey Brown

The Arrival – Shaun Tan

Delta Deep Down: Photographs by Jane Rule Burdine


The 40s: The Story of a Decade – a compilation of works written for the New Yorker in the 40s

The Wilderness Reader – compilation of twenty-six writings by conservationists, edited by Frank Bergon (gift from my uncle, who is a retired interpreter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.)

Spice & Wolf Vol. 1 by Isuna Hasekura

kira-kira by Cynthia Kadohata

While in Maine, we stopped in a Goodwill store and I found a few books that caught my eye:

Every Man Dies Alone – Hans Fallada (in very good condition)

Two Under the Indian Sun – Jon and Rumer Godden

Moonraker’s Bride – Madeleine Brent (While living with my aunt one summer as a teenager, I devoured several of Brent’s gothic romances. This book and another were my favorites at the time. It will be interesting to see how it holds up. In the intervening years, I discovered that Brent was actually a pseudonym for an author named Peter O’Donnell)




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