The Lie Tree : Frances Hardinge

The Lie TreeThe Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A long time ago I promised myself I would read more Frances Hardinge. I had come across her work beforehand in the rather lovely short story compilation Under My Hat, and been beguiled by her writing. Hardinge is not in my comfort zone as a reader; I stay away from fantasy sometimes, but sometimes comfort zones need to be challenged and writing that is as good as this needs to be embraced and really rather selfishly and indulgently and brilliantly loved.

For it is good, and Hardinge is good, and this dark and wild and intoxicating book is deliciously good.

Faith and her family have moved to the island of Vane; and there is no spoiler to be told, when I tell you that there is a death. Faith investigates this and comes upon The Lie Tree. It is a tree that feeds off lies and secrets, on darkness and on untruth, and when it has been fed enough, it produces fruit that will tell you a truth.

The addictive quality of truth. Of lies. I am knotted about this book, because it is so very good and yet I don’t quite know how to tell you about it. I almost want to spill the truth to you, to give you the quote that make my spine tingle and the glorious proclamations of selfhood that make my heart sing and my fist ball, but are they spoilers? Yes and no and maybe – here. We shall do this book this way. I shall give you definitive truths about The Lie Tree and we shall see what happens with that.

Hardinge is furiously unique; furiously, indelibly so and that is spectacular to read.

The Lie Tree is addictive, in that way that makes my heart sing at how good books can be.

Language here is a layered dance of weapons and of truth and falsehood and it is good.

Faith is wonderful; lost, brave, foolish, mad, joyful, exasperating, perfect. Hardinge gets how truly complex a female character can and should be, and how delicious and how honest that complexity is.

Life is a scar sometimes that will not heal until it is ready to do so. Hardinge gets that.

The Lie Tree is a dense, layered, mesmeric, beguiling read. It is intoxicating and powerful and it is a spell to be cast.

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The thing about jellyfish : Ali Benjamin

The Thing About JellyfishThe Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been thinking a lot about advance reviews and the timing of them. I worry, sometimes, about reviews being lost if I do them too early or lost if I do them too late. Noise. Volume. But then, as I think this, I juxtapose it against budgets and lead-in times and purchasing procedures and the reader who can’t buy it themselves but who could put a request in for their library to get it and I think of the time that that takes. Time. Weeks, maybe. Emails sent and books to be purchased, to be sent, to be catalogued and shelved and snatched off the shelf. Time, always. Plans for curriculum tie-ins, and for promotions, and to remember that reader who you see every other Saturday and who will love this book like it has always been destined for them.

And as I think this, I remember how great books are. Books that are great and books that are joyous and books that are life-affirming should be talked about and loudly talked about and I should not be reticent about doing so. Nobody should ever be nervous about talking about literature. There is such a power in doing so, in sharing your love with somebody else, and seeing that they get it.

I am brought then to The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, a book due out at the start of March, and kindly sent to me by Macmillan for review. I am brought to it this early because I think this is an important book that needs space making for it in a variety of contexts, and because the other day, as I finished it, I think I cried quite constantly for the last few chapters in that sort of breathy-half-cry-that-isn’t-a-cry-but-totally-is and I was locked to the pages and I am still thinking about it days later and writing this review full of emotion and doubt and longing to go back to it.

It took a while, this book to grasp me, but when it did I realised that it was heading that way all along. This is a novel that follows twelve year old Suzy as she comes to terms with the death of her best friend. Franny died at the beach; but Suzy is convinced that she died from a jellyfish sting. Convinced of this, Suzy decides to uncover the truth and tell the world of what happened to Franny.

A story of grief, of regret, and of jellyfish. Eccentric, really, as that sentence will no doubt make clear, but rather deliciously so. Suzy is a quietly logical and scientific individual who longs for facts and precision in this world; an instinct that runs at odds with the ragged edge of grief. As she begins her research, we start to realise that this book is more about finding answers. Resolution. Understanding of the thing that cannot ever be understood.

It is such a beautiful book this, slow and dance-like at the start, understated in its way, and it is one that builds to such a complex and painful and starkly brilliant emotional climax that I am made raw by it. I love this book. And, I think, that’s why this review is here, now.

I don’t want to forget how it made me feel. I don’t want that to dull.

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On library ladders and curlicues

Last night I watched a repeat of a programme, nestled away on the depths of BBC4, about life at Windsor Castle and it featured a scene in the Royal Library. Reader, I almost wept at how lovely it was. There is something quite ferociously glorious for me in an everyday basis in a library, but sometimes, sometimes, there are libraries that take my breath away. The symbolism of these libraries. The importance of them. The richness of them. Oh, and the library ladders on wheels. These are important too.

(Library ladders on wheels are my emotional kryptonite; I long for one)

Here are three of my current favourite libraries. I’ve visited one, long to visit the other two, and there are other libraries that I can’t bear to share but they are there, silently, quietly, the curve of their leather seats and their rows of neat spines nestle alongside these choices.

The Library from Beauty and The Beast

There’s something very private, sometimes, about sharing ones passions with somebody else. These passions are instinctive things; they define us and shape us, even at our lowest points, even when we’re wordless and lost in the night, there are the things that we love and it is those that provide the light. Gaming. Food. Films. Books. This scene isn’t just about he curve of those staircases and the delicious symmetry they provide, it’s about the shy nerves of the Beast and his realisation that Belle loves the space as much as he does. It’s about realising that there’s a space in the world for him once more.

But oh, oh, those shelves. The roaring heights of them, and those staircases, and the great space of this library, oh.

The Library at Windsor Castle

This video links to the documentary about Windsor Castle and in a way, I’d encourage you to watch the whole thing if you can. There’s something so fascinatingly glorious and outlandish about it all; the way the maids unpack the luggage through to the stick they use to measure that the chairs are the right distance away from the table.

The library itself appears fairly early on and intermittently throughout the episode. What makes my heart sing about this library is the nature of its holdings; this library contains history (which, I appreciate, a lot of them do) but when combined with this location and the finery and the dancing routines that surround it, there’s something quite potent about these finely bound volumes on the shelf. Knowledge is power. Always. But knowledge is also something else, and that is something to be treasured. Never be afraid of learning and never be afraid of what a book holds. That’s the message of this library for me; the way it holds such intensely worldly things on a shelf. Just. On. A. Shelf. Oh the discussions these books must have when the light’s off and the door’s locked…

Duke Humfrey’s Library


Recognise this one yet? I appreciate the tiny Daniel Radcliffe (so young!) may give it away, but it’s the library as featured in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. The delicious thing is that you can visit this library as it’s part of Oxford University and occasionally allows in tours (check for times and dates, etc, etc). I was lucky enough to get on one of thse tours and oh, it’s such a vivid experience. You climb up the stairs from the quadrangle, passing the narrow and ornate windows as you go, and emerge into the library itself; chained books on the shelves, the dark wood, and the sunlight cutting in through the leaded glass windows. Go (and also, whilst you’re in Oxford, take in a children’s literature tour – there are quite a few locations and things of interest there…)



A wild beginning

A New Year. A New Year, with all the inevitability, hope and curious letdown of another night, and another day and another morning and another evening. Another number notched. Another year rolled into. Another year done.

It’s raining. It’s rained on and off for a good week now; blanket-thick, grey, fat rolls of rain that smother the light from the day and turn everything into twilight. What else to do on such a day than to hole up and burrow down and read.

I’m reading.

I’m bathing in a sea of comic books, with plots so dense and abstract, that I wallow in the dynamism of the page, and of the colours, and the sharp nuances of character and relationships, captured in a few inked letters on a page. I love the precision of comics; the blink-sharp incision of a frame on the page, the way it hangs in the moment of the book itself.

I’ve discovered Sappho through If Not, Winter : Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carston. It is a book of space and restraint and I am drunk on it. I am drunk on the white space and the edged words and the way that there is so much caught in this poetry, so much that is said and unsaid. The spoken. The unspoken. A poet of nothing and of everything. I think I am obsessed.

I’m reading Watership Down; a book so seared to me visually by the film adaptation, that I had forgotten the thick and fat beauty of the original text. Rabbits. Rabbits, and yet, in this sprawling, rich Tolkien-esque saga, there is so much here to enjoy. It is a rich, layered wild in this book, and it is one that seems to revel in a slow read. An indulgent read.

(If I ask anything of you this year, it is to give yourself a slow read. An indulgent read. A selfish, generous, passionate read. Tell nobody of it. Hold it to yourself. Delight in that dialogue between you and the text and revel in your read. There is such power in this space).

The idea of wild and the wilderness is something I keep returning to here, now, in this mid-space between Christmas and reality, this pause of the world; the wild is so much in children’s literature and yet, so rarely expressed. Piers Torday‘s potent The Last Wild trilogy deals with the loss of the wilderness and the ramifications of that upon our world. The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse tells the story of a band of water voles, and I am excited to see a sequel in this series. Richard Adams, of course, is one of the foremost authors in this area, with the richness of Watership Down and the fantastically dark , more adult, and quite vicious Shardik.

The unknowable nature of the wild; the dark. The edge of the world. I think Susan Cooper had it right; that there is a thinness to this world at times. Maybe this time is when we feel it the most; the nights that are not quite dark and then, at another glance, a moment later, pitch-black and lightless. The thin-grey light of the half-day. The rain, the wind. The point of the year where the world is less ours and more somebody elses. Something wild.

The telephone wires are dancing with the wind; and the rain is marking itself against my window, burning the glass with its insistent presence.

I shall go and read.



Wendy : Karen Wallace

WendyWendy by Karen Wallace

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had time for Karen Wallace’s stiffly written, dark, and yet strangely intriguing Climbing A Monkey Puzzle Tree, and so I came to Wendy with some interest. A prequel of sorts to the deliciously complex Peter Pan, Wendy tells the story of the Darling household and of the “intrepid, outspoken and wilful” Wendy herself. The household is not in well state; there are secrets, mysteries, “cruelty and hypocrisy”.

It is not an easy book this, nor a likable one, but something about Wallace’s prose does appeal to me. I’m not sure that I like it though; I’m not sure that I like a book so determined to see beyond the gloss and glitter of the world, so determined to bring a darkness to a world that perhaps does not warrant such. But then, who am I to decide the parameters of a fictional space for someone else? Books like this always make me so very conscious of the role of the reader and of their reading; that space that everyone has with a book, coloured and shaped to their individualistic read. My read is not yours, nor should I expect it to be. And for some reason with Wendy, I am reminded of the darkly complex Chalet Girls Grow Up by Merryn Williams; a book with its own complexities of space and of tone and of anger and of rage, rage against the dying of the light and the furious nature of humanity.

I am not sure what to make of Wendy, really, but I know this: it is a book which I do not recommend easily, nor fulsomely. I do recommend it as something for those interested in the space around readerly responses to classic texts, as something for those who are interested in the nature of people’s reading of texts and of their ability to see things in the space that is forgotten or over-read by others. Wallace’s text is beautiful at points, brief, sharp, crystalline, and at others, it is something quite dense and dark and unfathomable. A book of contrasts this, a book of the darkest darkness with the briefest and most ephemeral moments of light. But I am still not sure that I liked it, not at all.

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Britain’s Favourite Children’s Books

Just a quick heads up that this programme was on channel four last night. As ever with lists of things, there’s those things that are in and those that aren’t, those that make you beam at the TV and go “YEP, NICE CHOICE” and those that make you go “WHAT REALLY?”. Which is all great.

The other reason why I’m sharing this is that there were actual children talking about actual children’s books at a time where actual children could watch. And that matters, it really does. Nice work Channel Four. More of this sort of thing please.

Merry Christmas

“Madge! Wake up, old thing! It’s Christmas morning! Merry Christmas to you!”

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer (1925) Jo of the Chalet School


Merry Christmas to you and yours. Thank you for the time you’ve spent reading, commenting and just being around this blog this year. I wish you all the best for 2016 and, of course, many many (many) books.