a study in charlotte

Do you like clever YA books? You'll like A Study in Charlotte, then. It's gender-swapped teenlock (teenlock = stories about Sherlock Holmes in his teen years...that's something I learned from fandom!), and an adventure and a half. I’ve been making my way through the BBC show Sherlock verrrrry slowly, and I’ve read and watched several other Sherlock Holmes adaptations over the years too. Brittany Cavallaro’s take on Sherlock Holmes is familiar in that it is smart and full of mystery and murder, but it has enough details turned sideways to make for a fresh, fun take on the world’s favorite detective. 

a study in charlotte by brittany cavallaro book cover
The last thing Jamie Watson wants is a rugby scholarship to Sherringford, a Connecticut prep school just an hour away from his estranged father. But that’s not the only complication: Sherringford is also home to Charlotte Holmes, the famous detective’s great-great-great-granddaughter, who has inherited not only Sherlock’s genius but also his volatile temperament. From everything Jamie has heard about Charlotte, it seems safer to admire her from afar.

From the moment they meet, there’s a tense energy between them, and they seem more destined to be rivals than anything else. But when a Sherringford student dies under suspicious circumstances, ripped straight from the most terrifying of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Jamie can no longer afford to keep his distance. Jamie and Charlotte are being framed for murder, and only Charlotte can clear their names. But danger is mounting and nowhere is safe—and the only people they can trust are each other.

When the descendents of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson meet at posh boarding school Sherringford in New England, it's a recipe for drama. But anger-prone Jamie Watson and mysterious Charlotte Holmes didn't expect a murder investigation to bring them together. Or did they? Their term at Sherringford will be one of late night rendezvous, alibis and danger as the modern heirs of the original Watson and Holmes are drawn to each other and into a web of deception.

Things I liked about this book: first, although Jamie is predisposed to like his Holmes counterpart, he doesn’t (in my reading) fall prey to instalove, which was a nice surprise. Instead, he gets to know Charlotte, and it’s clear that he considers and accepts everything about her – flaws and failings included – when he insists on being her friend. Second, I really appreciated Cavallaro’s thoughtful framing of consent or lack thereof in sexual situations. This, paired with characters’ conflicting responses to the sex they (or others) are having (running the gamut from slut-shaming to assigning importance where there was none to casual acceptance and so on) made for a school culture that felt authentic.

On that note, I think one of the things Cavallaro excelled at was not only writing a book that people wouldn’t be able to put down (probably goal #1 for any book, tbh), but also in making it very of-the-moment, and genuinely young adultA Study in Charlotte is a Sherlock Holmes mystery updated for both the modern world and its audience. Jamie’s obsession with a person he has never met in person mirrored the truth of my own teen experience. Charlotte's self-destructive choices and eventual emotional growth make total sense in context for a high school kid. The gender-swapped characters paid homage to the Sherlock Holmes of the past but were clearly their own. The result? A fun riff on Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature creation that will appeal to those familiar with Holmes AND those who are not.

In all: A Study in Charlotte is a quick, fun read, and a marvelous distraction. I can’t wait to see what’s next in the sequel The Last of August (out next week!).

Recommended for: anyone who has enjoyed BBC’s Sherlock (even the non-readers!), and for fans of clever contemporary YA.

the chimes

Friday, February 3, 2017 | | 1 comments
How did Anna Smaill’s The Chimes end up in my pile of books to read? That’s the question I’m asking myself after finishing it in one gulp yesterday. I stayed home sick from work and couldn’t bear to stare at a screen. The printed page worked though, so I read a really wonderful book in between naps and cups of tea. It’s the sort of book I thought would have been praised to the skies, the coverage unavoidable. If it was, I missed it. And my library only has two print copies in the system (and no ebooks), so they missed it too. My best guess is that I saw it mentioned in Book Riot’s Swords & Spaceships newsletter from November 4 (those lovely, simple days pre-election) – and I must have added it then to my library holds list. In any event, go find a copy for yourself and read it because it. is. fantastic.

the chimes by anna smaill book cover
After the end of a brutal civil war, London is divided, with slums standing next to a walled city of elites. Monk-like masters are selected for special schooling and shut away for decades, learning to write beautiful compositions for the chimes, played citywide morning and night, to mute memory and keep the citizens trapped in ignorance.

A young orphan named Simon arrives in London with nothing but the vague sense of a half-forgotten promise, to locate someone. What he finds is a new family--a gang of scavengers that patrols the underbelly of the city looking for valuable metal to sell. Drawn in by an enigmatic and charismatic leader, a blind young man named Lucien with a gift for song, Simon forgets entirely what originally brought him to the place he has now made his home.

In this alternate London, the past is a mystery, each new day feels the same as the last, and before is considered "blasphony." But Simon has a unique gift--the gift of retaining memories--that will lead him to discover a great injustice and take him far beyond the meager life as a member of Lucien's gang. Before long he will be engaged in an epic struggle for justice, love, and freedom.

In Simon’s world, the music of the Chimes at the end of the day wipes away memory, and the Onestory at the start of the day tells the story of humanity’s history. Since humans can’t hold on to memories, they hold on to bodymemory (repetitive actions mostly having to do with their trade) and objectmemory (imbuing specific objects with a memory they want to keep with them). But newly orphaned Simon has a gift – he can see memories and hold on to them longer than most. When he makes his way to London he falls in with a group of scavengers led by the ringleader Lucien and forgets about his past and his quest – for a time. Memory won’t leave him alone though, even in a world where that shouldn’t be possible.

Do you know that strange familiar feeling when a story is deeply original, but it somehow also reminds you of some thing, some touchstone in your memory? That is both the baseline story and the feeling evoked by this book. It is clear from the very start that something is deeply awry in Simon’s world, and that something has to do with music. Music is so pervasive it has replaced most speech, and the written word (code) has died out completely. From page 31 of The Chimes, “The words are simple, because words are not to be trusted. Music holds the meaning now.” The Onestory says that words were the thing that brought about the end of the world. And with no one who can remember yesterday, much less the past, all of London must accept that as fact.

The Chimes is chilling and poetic and original, and I loved it. Music permeates every page, every part of life in Simon’s London. Events occur subito or lento, not suddenly or slowly, and time is marked in musical notation. That said, you need not have a background in music to “get it” – everything can be picked up in context. And as you’d imagine with a story told in an amnesiac world, the truth comes to light only slowly, in fits and starts, as memory unravels. Meditations on the meaning and genius of music, truth, and the shape and fragility of human memory (and then what that means about the “essentials” of life) – these are the things that take a dystopian tale and marry it to literary fiction. The resulting story is just gorgeous.

Other marks in its favor: it’s fairly short, it has good cross-over potential (there’s nothing subject matter-wise that I’d hesitate to give to a mature twelve year old), and though it has the “tag” of literary fiction, it would fit just as well on a sci-fi and fantasy shelf. Also [spoiler: highlight to see text] the only romantic relationship is a gay one, so that’s happy-making [end spoiler].

So I’ve told you why I love it. But. This book will not work for everyone, as evidenced by its Goodreads rating. It doesn’t teem with a constant sense of danger, and there’s no villain to root against from the start.  Subtle, complex stories have to hit the right chord with the reader, and if you add up the heavily musical language, dystopian setting, and memory loss afflicting the characters, reader drop off is a given. It’s a book that takes a bit of patience, but it’s wildly inventive and unsettling and beautifully written once you’ve gotten inside and been swept away.

I happened to read The Chimes at the right time. I needed a story that was simultaneously beautiful and new, and that asked the age-old questions, “Do the ends justify the means?” and “What does it mean to be human?”

Recommended for: fans of the music of Patricia McKillip’s writing, the sincerity of Patrick Ness’ protagonists, and the subtlety of Leah Bobet’s worldbuilding, those looking for an adult readalike of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and anyone who loves music, cleverly wrought dystopias, and/or literary fiction.
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