Tag Archives: A Face Like Glass

My Top Reads of 2013 (Children’s and YA)

And so, as promised, here are a few of the books (in the categories of ‘Children’s Literature’ and ‘YA Literature’), read over the past year, which made enough of an impression on me to stick in my memory. As with my previous list, they’re not all books published in the last twelve months, for reasons pecuniary and otherwise, but maybe some of them will be new to you anyway.

Image: mychildbook.com

Image: mychildbook.com

Favourite Reads of 2013

I read R.J. Palacio’s Wonder in one sitting, like taking a long drink of water on a hot day. The story of a young boy named August who has a facial deformity – and, crucially, of his sister Olivia (or ‘Via’) who struggles to cope with her feelings surrounding August’s condition, and the way people treat him as a result – it’s a beautiful little book. Some critics have called it ‘maudlin’ and ‘over-the-top,’ and, to a certain extent, it is, but I loved it anyway. I loved August, and his wonderful voice, and I really loved the way we hear from Olivia, too, and how she deals with her own feelings of jealousy (because August is ‘the special child’), as well as her overprotective tendencies and her absolute devotion to her brother. Some of the characters, particularly the adults, are a little one-dimensional in this story, but that’s not even important. This book is not about adults – it’s about one little boy, doing the best he can with what he has. Its catchphrase, ‘Always be Kinder than Necessary,’ is something I particularly remember from my experience of reading it.

I finally managed to read Frances Hardinge’s Verdigris Deep this year, too. In contrast to her other novels, this one is set in a contemporary setting, and tells the story of Ryan, Chelle and Josh who, when stuck for money to pay for the bus home one night, steal some old coins from an abandoned wishing well. From that moment on, their lives begin to change. Strange events start happening, and – in a brilliantly creepy piece of ‘body horror’, white bumps start to erupt on Ryan’s hands, which turn out to be more than just a skin infection. Then, Ryan begins to have visions of a woman who tries to speak through a torrent of water gushing out of her mouth, and he understands enough to know that this is the Well Witch, and by stealing her coins the youngsters are now bound to do her will. Ryan and Chelle try to break the spell and release themselves from the Witch’s bonds, but Josh seems to enjoy the new-found power that granting the Well Witch’s wishes gives him, and breaking him out of it is not so easy… An utterly brilliant book, ‘Verdigris Deep’ is a quick read by comparison with Frances Hardinge’s other work, which tends to be set in fantastical times and places with huge amounts of world-building. That doesn’t mean I loved it any less than her other books – on the contrary, it has become my second favourite, behind ‘A Face Like Glass.’

Image: franceshardinge.com

Image: franceshardinge.com

All Fall Down and Ways to Live Forever are novels by Sally Nicholls, and they couldn’t be more different – well, besides the fact that they both deal with death, that is. ‘All Fall Down’ is set in England during the time of the Black Death, and tells the story of Isabel and her family, who live in a small village called Ingleforn. They are peasant farmers, but seem happy – Isabel is part of a loving family, and her future has already been mapped out for her. She will marry Robin, her childhood friend, and they will raise their family the same way her parents have raised her, and so on forevermore.

Then, the pestilence comes, and everything changes.

This story isn’t so much about ‘suspense’, because anyone who knows anything about the Plague will understand what’s going to happen. It’s more a story about family, bonds between people, the sheer human tragedy of the death toll during 1348-9, and one teenage girl’s indomitable will to survive.

Ways to Live Forever is the story of Sam, who is an eleven-year-old cancer patient. He is inquisitive and wants to know everything he can – and there’s so much he wants to do before his time comes to die. He makes a list, and then his doctor tells him he has much less time left than he thought… This book made me cry in great shuddering sobs, but it’s still one of my favourite reads this year. Sam made a little nest in my heart, and he’ll never leave. I loved it, but it’s a challenging read if you’re emotional. Fair warning.

Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines was finally read by me this year. How did I leave this one so long? Heck knows. Anyway, we’re in a world where cities move on huge tracks, trundling across the land devouring one another when they can, and the principle of Municipal Darwinism rules all – the town which moves the fastest lives the longest. One of New London’s chief Historians, Thaddeus Valentine – a man seen as a hero by most everybody – is the victim of an attempted assassination by a young girl with a hideous scar running across her face. Valentine is saved at the last moment by the heroic actions of a young Historian, Tom Natsworthy, but when Tom he sees the young would-be assassin, the passion and hate in her eyes intrigue him. When she flings herself off the moving city, presumably to her death, Tom follows her. What follows is a story of intrigue, conspiracy, airships, battle, resurrected corpses used as unbeatable soldiers, heroism and sacrifice which stands with the very best SF, let alone SF aimed at young adult readers. It’s an amazing book, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of the series.

Image: bookzone4boys.blogspot.com

Image: bookzone4boys.blogspot.com

The novels of David Walliams were a present last Christmas, and I devoured them with great glee. The Boy in the Dress, Gangsta Granny, Billionaire Boy and Mr Stink have lots of things in common, including compelling and lovable protagonists, several recurring characters, a focus on family and love, and not making snap judgements about people based on their appearance, and to top all that off they’re well written and extremely funny. I haven’t yet read Walliams’ new books, Ratburger or The Demon Dentist, but I plan to. If you’re looking for a gift for a child from about 7 or 8, or you just want to laugh your socks off (and cry a little, too), you can’t go wrong with these.

Image: ashclassbookblog.blogspot.com

Image: ashclassbookblog.blogspot.com

A few runners up:

I also read The Fault in Our Stars, along with the rest of the world, and I wept (like everyone else), but it wasn’t one of my favourite books this year, for a lot of reasons; I read The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket and enjoyed it right up to the end, which I felt was a disappointment; I finished Veronica Roth’s YA series which began with Divergent and was left a little underwhelmed by the conclusion (in Allegiant, the third book in the series.) ‘Allegiant’ is unnecessarily long, I thought, and the double-narration style is difficult to follow because the voices sound exactly the same.

So, there you have it. My list of favourite reads, as of today. Hopefully I’ve given you some gift ideas, or even some reading ideas, or maybe I’ve bored your socks off. Either way, happy Tuesday!

Continuing Tradition – Review of ‘A Face Like Glass’ by Frances Hardinge

Regular readers, you’ll know what to expect…

Image: franceshardinge.com

Image: franceshardinge.com

Yup. It’s a book review. This week, it’s the turn of ‘A Face Like Glass’, by Frances Hardinge.

I have to admit, right at the start, that I’m a huge Frances Hardinge fan. She’s an amazing writer, who knows how to use words and who’s not afraid to make them work hard, a writer who doesn’t shy away from language just because she chooses to write for younger readers. Coming to her work was, for me, a revelation. It showed me just how good and how exciting children’s books could be.

‘A Face Like Glass’ is an excellent book, in keeping with its shelfmates ‘Fly By Night’, ‘Twilight Robbery’ and ‘Gullstruck Island’ (I have yet to acquire ‘Verdigris Deep’, but I will do, just as soon as funds allow!) It’s a book filled with such leaps of imagination that reading it can leave you feeling breathless and incredulous, wondering how on earth one brain could possibly hold so much wonder. It tells the story of a vast (and notoriously unmappable) underground city named Caverna, which houses a collection of eclectic and unusual inhabitants. As well as Cheesemaster Grandible, with whom our heroine Neverfell makes her home after she mysteriously turns up in one of his vats, we meet the powerful Childersin family, who are hiding an immense secret, and Madame Appeline, the famous Facesmith.

A Facesmith? What on earth is that? Well… it’s hard to explain.

Caverna needs Facesmiths because it is a world in which people are born without the ability to form facial expressions. This doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings – they are just rendered unable to show them to others. Everyone in this world is taught, from a young age, the basic expressions, but of course there are those for whom this limited repertoire is insufficient. Facesmiths, then, design expressions, and bring out ‘ranges’, like fashion collections, of trademarked (and viciously guarded) Faces. They employ Putty Girls, young women with particularly pliable facial muscles, in order to display their wares to potential clients. People ‘of quality’, with plenty of money, can afford to buy several hundred Faces, whereas those of lower classes are taught the bare minimum of expressions as children – ones which will serve their station in life, expressing their acquiescence and their eagerness to obey orders.

If all this sounds rather strange, then think of this: how can you tell if a person is lying or telling the truth, if their face is a static mask which betrays no emotion? How can you gauge how another is feeling, if their expression doesn’t give it away? How – as Hardinge explores at the end of the book – can people feel part of a shared community if everyone wears the same neutral expression, if nobody can look at their neighbour with sympathy, understanding, love, or even compassion? If your feelings are constantly locked up inside you, with no way to be expressed? She takes the idea of Faces and makes it so important, so vital to understanding what it means to be a human being, that I was left staggered by her worldbuilding.

Caverna is underground, and the people who live there have a profound fear of Outside. They live in terror of the sun, which burns off people’s skin and leaves them blind (so they have been told), but Neverfell – the deliciously, lovably eccentric protagonist of this tale – has memories, or flashes, of things she can’t explain, things like the wind, and the feeling of being beneath nothing but the sky, and birdsong. Nobody can explain how she ended up falling into Cheesemaster Grandible’s life, but he takes her in and makes her his apprentice, and pretty soon she’s as accomplished a cheesemaker as anyone could be. She has to turn her back on this quiet, but safe, life, however, when she gets herself mixed up with Madame Appeline. This intriguing figure has made her name as a Facesmith with her Tragedy Range, a collection of Faces so heartrending that every lady of quality has to own it; Neverfell feels an inexplicable connection to this grand lady which she must uncover. In the process of trying to do this, she manages to inveigle herself in the affairs of the Childersin family, who are favourites at the court of the Grand Steward, the notoriously unstable leader of this underground world.

The most amazing thing about Neverfell, though, is this: she has a face which isn’t constrained by Caverna’s strange lack of expression. She has, as the title says, a face like glass – a face so clear and honest that you can look straight through it to her heart, and her emotions are displayed for all to see. Grandible has kept her masked all her life, until she’s about thirteen or so, and because of this Neverfell believes herself to be grotesquely ugly. The real reason, of course, is that Grandible can’t bear to look upon her because her face is natural and free, and not constrained by any of the official Faces. Neverfell cannot lie, and that’s something the people of Caverna can’t understand – and it makes her both dangerous and desirable. At court, she is completely natural, too, which means she blunders her way through proceedings, offending all around her, and creating ructions in the delicate structures of etiquette and protocol, to which she’s oblivious. She puts the Childersins in danger, and has to escape in order to save her own life.

But, in an underground city, how far can you run?

This book is, like all of Hardinge’s novels, big and meaty and wordy and complicated, and so full of imagery and description and language that I wish I could have read it as a teenager. It would have given me an even deeper love for words than that which I already have. It tackles a complicated Court structure – imagine pre-Revolutionary France, but even more unhinged – as well as social class, the oppression of the poor, the absurd privilege and entitlement accorded to those who can afford it, notions of humanity and identity and freedom, questions about mental health and delusion, how treating people like objects leads to terror. It introduces us to the most endearing and unique heroine I’ve ever come across in children’s fiction, a young girl who has courage, intelligence and self-belief, and who – once she discovers what is wrong with the heart of her world – has the conviction to do something about it. It’s deftly plotted, expertly written, and handled so well that the reader never feels lost, or confused, or has to wonder what’s going on. This is a story which sucks you in and spits you out when it’s done with you; you’ll be a changed person, but you’ll be glad of it.

In short, it’s marvellous.

It’s a children’s book, but at nearly 500 pages, it’s a story for everyone masquerading as a children’s book. I hope you try it. I challenge you not to be astounded.

Happy weekend – may you read widely and well!