Tag Archives: Frances Hardinge


The writer S.F. Said, who I hugely admire both as an author and a general all-round nice person, recently kicked off a campaign aimed at encouraging journalists, bloggers, other writers and any interested parties to #CoverKidsBooks – in other words, to afford kids’ books the same media coverage offered to books written for adults.

Why, you might ask? Well. Why not?

In the UK, kids’ books occupy 30% of the total book sales market yet they attract only 3% of the media coverage, and that is largely in specialist supplements and publications aimed at people interested in the field. Since S.F.’s campaign began this has started to change, but there is still much to do.


Image credit: S.J. O’Hart

It can be hard to find the ‘right’ book in the torrent of published titles. Children themselves may be attracted to popular books, ones their friends or classmates are reading, or ones written by famous authors. Some books, not always the right ones for a particular child, will always rise to the top of the pile and some – among which may be neglected gems – will unfairly sink without trace. A story which might have changed a life or given a child something to strive for, or indeed simply something to laugh at, might be missed. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and godparents and family friends who wisely choose to give books as gifts to the little people in their lives, might be utterly lost as to where to look for inspiration. I can’t count how often I’m asked for my advice – and while I love helping out, not everyone knows a person like me, who has some vague knowledge of the broad and wondrous world of children’s literature.

So.What’s the answer?

Reviews of kids’ books in major newspapers, for one. Interviews with authors, features on children’s literature and issues relating to the important topics covered in the ‘Books of the Week’ would also be good. And proper coverage of award-winning books, like the mighty Frances Hardinge and her Costa Book of the Year 2016, The Lie Tree – the first children’s author to win since Philip Pullman, many years before. The coverage I saw of this momentous win was more like bemused, polite wonderment, slightly patronising praise, and some downright rude questioning of how on earth such a thing came to pass, rather than a celebration of a great book justly rewarded.

I wonder how many of these journalists and commenters had even read the book.

We need to #CoverKidsBooks on the radio, on social media, in traditional media, on the television, and get it going as a topic of conversation. An adult looking for a gift should know straight away where to find advice and recommendations. A child looking for their next read should have no problem finding just the right book for their needs, and should be able to access a library (with knowledgeable staff) and/or a bookshop (also with knowledgeable staff) without trouble. Children’s books are so important, and within their covers they contain multitudes; worlds full of magic, imagination, heart and intelligence, tightly plotted and expertly written stories of love, loss, adventure, danger, exploration, and discovery – to name just a fraction of the treasures you’ll find if you look – and they deserve to be respected.

There are just as many talented and hard-working people writing children’s books as adult titles, and as well as that, children’s books are most definitely not just for children. Children’s books, and books for young adults, also have a largely undeserved reputation for being simplistic and unchallenging, which is maddening to me and anyone familiar with the field. They cover every topic you’ll find in the ‘classics’, and in the adult books which hog all the attention, and in most cases they’re written with more flair and verve and – frankly – excitement than even the best stories for grown-ups. There are some duds out there, of course, but the very best children’s books shine with an incandescence that very few adult books can match.

It’s time for children’s books to step into the spotlight, and claim their rightful laurels. We can all help by following the #CoverKidsBooks hashtag, asking our local librarians and booksellers to help make children’s books more visible, and asking for greater kidlit coverage in newspapers, radio and online – and creating our own content when we can. Let’s all do our bit, and enjoy watching children’s literature soar.



Book Review Saturday – ‘The Lie Tree’


Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

Shortly after I’d finished reading this book, I engaged in a Twitter-versation about it with another book blogger (and all-round fabulous lady, whose Twitter feed you can follow here), where we concluded that Frances Hardinge is an underappreciated genius. The Lie Tree is a ‘typical’ Hardinge novel, insofar as it is the equal – in terms of beauty, plotting, characterisation, language, setting and complexity – of all her other novels, yet at the same time it is entirely different from anything that has gone before. There is no ‘typical’ Hardinge novel, really – they are all different. She is versatile, invigorating, and never less than compelling, in everything she writes.

I’d really love to spend five minutes in her imagination.

The Lie Tree is the story of Faith Sunderly, her father Rev Erasmus Sunderly, her mother Myrtle and her younger brother Howard. It is set in the 1860s, beginning with a journey from England to an island called Vane, possibly in the English Channel, where the Sunderly family are beginning a new life. Rev Sunderly has been asked to attend an archaeological dig (because, as well as an Anglican clergyman, he is an expert in fossils – or, at least, so we think), but Faith knows from the get-go that there is something larger going on. Her family seems to be fleeing from something, and her inquisitiveness and courage soon allow her to discover that her father’s reputation is in tatters. He is suspected of intellectual fraud, and is leaving ‘society’ for a time to allow the dust to settle. On the island, the family struggles to settle in their new home, dealing with sullen staff and – as soon as word of the ‘scandal’ reaches the islanders – the disdain of their peers. No matter how far the Sunderlys run, the whiff of impropriety is hot on their heels.

Then, Faith’s father dies in mysterious circumstances. He is suspected of having taken his own life, which means he cannot be buried in consecrated ground, and the family’s desperation deepens. But Faith soon begins to suspect that the truth surrounding her father’s death is far more complex, and in her attempts to uncover what really happened, she gets drawn deep into a mystery which, ultimately, destroyed her father – and threatens to destroy her.

This story appears ‘simple’. It it true that there is no detailed world-building here, no complex magical and/or political systems nor any larger-than-life characters; it is firmly set in the Victorian period, with all the upheaval that went with that era. Darwin’s Origin of Species has just been published and its repercussions are creating pained ripples in society; science and faith are intermingled; social roles are rigid. Faith (whose name, along with the root of ‘sunder’ in her surname, seems to me a comment on the division between belief and rationality) is a highly intelligent, scientifically-minded, headstrong girl who is stymied at every turn, told she cannot live the life she wants because of her sex, and the frustration this causes her is tangible. Her brother Howard is locked into his own rigid role, forced to stifle his natural left-handedness for fear it will cripple his future prospects and assume the mantle of the ‘man’ in his family despite being barely six years old. It is the character of Myrtle, the children’s mother, who I found most intriguing; calculated, cunning and extremely clever – though not in ways which are immediately apparent to her hot-headed daughter – she is a survivor in a world which is stacked against her. Myrtle’s self-preservation in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death turns Faith’s stomach, but to the reader, what she’s doing is obvious. Myrtle knows she will be disinherited, and she has no asset besides her beauty and appeal to men, which she wastes no time in bringing to bear upon her relationships with the important men of the island. It is no surprise that her daughter finds this upsetting, but one can’t help but be consumed with a sort of admiration for Myrtle’s machinations, at the same time.

I haven’t even mentioned the lie tree itself yet, and that’s not accidental. The Tree, referred to as the Mendacity Tree by some, is the only non-realistic part of this story, and in so many ways it’s symbolic of Faith’s struggle to find out the truth about her family and her father and about the realities of life in the Victorian era, particularly on a small island. Much of the book takes place without its even being an important part of the plot. As an object in and of itself, it is a mysterious plant which feeds on lies, sprouting fruit which, when eaten, affords the consumer visions of the ‘truth’ – or a truth, at least. Faith’s father had discovered this plant years before and had been keeping it secret – but it appears not to have been as secret as he thought. Faith becomes entangled in the Tree as she searches for her father’s killer (for she is certain he did not take his own life, and knows that if she can’t prove it, her father’s estate will be confiscated by the Crown), and – as lies are wont – the Tree’s effects spread far beyond anything she intended, growing more and more complex and terrifying with every lie she feeds it.

This story is about feminism, Victorian social attitudes, the clash between religion and evolutionary belief (and the real, true agony caused by it to intelligent people of faith), the nature of lies and the nature of truth and how to disentangle them, and the impossibility of keeping a lid on salacious gossip and life-destroying lies. It is told simply, in a straightforward manner (so, very unlike some of Hardinge’s other books, but totally in character with Faith’s scientific, matter-of-fact outlook), and perhaps at the end it felt a little too well tied up, but that is the only thing I could point to as being less than entirely satisfactory. I loved this book. Frances Hardinge is, to me, an author who is constantly pushing at the boundaries of MG/YA literature and showing exactly what writing for this age group can do. This philosophical, intelligent and deeply strange book is a haunting, complex and beautifully written piece of literature, and deserves a wide readership.

Books I’d Love to see Made into Movies/TV shows

Inspired by (or, rather, shamelessly ripped off from) this rather fabulous post on the Middle Grade Strikes Back blog, I’ve been thinking for the past while about MG and YA books which would work fantastically well as movies and/or TV shows. Some of my choices, naturally enough, will overlap with those featured on the MG Strikes Back blog (because the choices there are amazing), but some of them are new and fresh. (Rather unlike me at the moment, it must be said. I’m just back from the doctor’s, where I was diagnosed with a ‘mild upper respiratory tract infection’. Well, that’s all well and good, doc, but it didn’t seem so ‘mild’ last night at 2.37 a.m. when I was awake, coughing up a lung.

But I digress).

So. My first choice of a MG/YA book which would be a fantastic movie or TV show is:

The Predator Cities series, by Philip Reeve

How amazing would these books be on the big screen? I think they’d be best as movies, because there’s just too much spectacle for the small screen. Mechanised moving cities, reanimated corpses, girls with half a face, airships, scavengers, fights to the death… wow. These books have it all, and more. I’d love to see a movie adaptation of this series – and I haven’t even read all the books yet!

The Chaos Walking trilogy, by Patrick Ness

It’s strange how I haven’t reviewed these books on my blog yet, because they’ve been among my favourites for years now. Telling the story of Todd and Manchee, his beloved and faithful dog, as they struggle to overcome tyranny and injustice in the settlement of Prentisstown (where only men live, and where thoughts are audible to all, rendering privacy and peace impossible), and how their lives change when they discover Viola – the first female creature Todd has ever encountered – the books are masterpieces. The strength of the characters, coupled with the scope for fantastic settings, means these books would work incredibly well on screen. I could see this being a successful TV series or a movie. Either way it’s high time I re-read the books!

Image: everydayisa.wordpress.com

Image: everydayisa.wordpress.com

John Connolly’s Samuel Johnson books

John Connolly is one of the world’s most successful crime/thriller writers, and I love his Charlie Parker series of books for grown-ups about a private eye with a supernatural side. However, his books for MG readers, which tell the tale of Samuel Johnson and his struggle to avoid the clutches of Hell (after a wormhole to that fetid dimension is opened up, accidentally, by his neighbours) are a laugh a minute. Between crazy characters and icky creatures, these books would be a fab TV show. I’d love to see them on a screen.

Emma Pass’ ACID

A heart-thumping blockbuster of a book with a great heroine and an adrenaline-fuelled storyline, this YA novel would make a fantastic movie. It has everything: technology, a futuristic setting, excellent conflict, great characters and enough action to keep everyone happy. I hope Hollywood comes calling for this story, sooner or later.

Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co novels

Ghosts! Ghouls! Murder most foul! Rapiers! Elegant clothing! Fantastical set-pieces! Adventure! Derring-do! Talking skulls! Banter!

Yes. The sooner the better the Lockwood books get a big or small screen outing, in my opinion. I’d love to see raffish Lockwood, bristly Lucy and clever George translated into three dimensions. Not to mention the spirits who share their lives…

Jeanette Winterson’s Tanglewreck

I’m torn between this one and Winterson’s other MG work, The Battle of the Sun, as my choice for a movie/TV adaptation. Ultimately I plumped for this one due to the fact that it’s about time, and the wrangling and rippling thereof, and the struggles to control it – and I’m always a sucker for that sort of thing. It’s peopled with some of the most fabulously named characters (Silver River, Abel Darkwater, Mrs Rokabye) and incredible creatures (including but not limited to a mammoth), and its sheer cleverness means it would be an amazing movie, in the right hands.

Image: jeanettewinterson.com

Image: jeanettewinterson.com

Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur novels

Crossley-Holland’s evocative, beautiful, multi-layered stories about Arthur de Caldicot and his attempts to become a knight – while dealing with the legacy of the long-ago heroic King Arthur who shares his name – would be a fabulous TV show. I would love to see the books’ beautiful settings and gorgeous ideas about heroism and growing up translated to a screen.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

Yes, I know there was a movie made based on the first of these majestic books already, and – for some crazy reason – it didn’t do well enough for the other stories to be filmed. Sometimes I wish for a Kickstarter to be set up to fund the making of the second two movies in this series, because I, for one, would love to see how they would turn out. Sadly the young actor who played Lyra so very well in the first movie has long grown up, so the part would have to be recast – but I would give anything to see Nicole Kidman reinhabit her role as the villainous Mrs Coulter. If ever there was an example of perfect casting, that was it! These books are among the best in the world for young readers, and it’s such a shame the movies don’t exist beside them.

Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song

Image: panmacmillan.com

Image: panmacmillan.com

Frankly, I think all of Frances Hardinge’s books would make wonderful films and/or TV shows, and I live in hope that BBC or ITV or some other UK-based network will pick up on this, and immortalise her words for the screen. When thinking about this post, though, it was Cuckoo Song which struck me as being the most immediately suitable for adaptation, perhaps because of its war theme (which is relevant now) and perhaps because of the sheer power of the story. It’s less fantastical than some of her other works (so, possibly, easier to film) but no less impactful. It’s an incredible story which I’d happily pay to see on film.

The Hounds of the Morrígan, by Pat O’Shea

Image: hierath.wordpress.com

Image: hierath.wordpress.com

This book is part of my DNA. I love it passionately, even though it’s been well over twenty years since I last read it (and, come to think of it, I have no idea where my copy is). It would work fantastically as a TV show or a movie, though it would have to be sensitively handled to avoid becoming too ‘stage Oirish’; a clever Irish filmmaker could probably do a lot with it. Telling the story of Pidge and his sister Brigit, who become wrapped up in ancient Celtic myth when Pidge comes across a book which contains the spirit of a long-slumbering evil, it’s one of the finest books for children to have come out of Ireland. What a shame its author passed away before completing her sequel – and a bigger shame that this gem of storytelling has largely been forgotten.

So, there you are. No real surprises there! What would be your top 10 MG/YA books – or indeed books from any genre or age group – which you’d love to see turned into movies or TV shows?

EDIT: I remembered last night (midway through a coughing attack) that I’d forgotten one of the books I really wanted to mention in this post. I was going to subtly swap one of the choices above for this one, but then decided I’d prefer to just add it on here instead. That choice is:

Siobhan Dowd, A Swift Pure Cry (or Bog Child, if people prefer)

I love both these books by the late, much-mourned Siobhan Dowd. A Swift Pure Cry, telling the story of a young girl pregnant out of wedlock in an Ireland which is, hopefully, passing into memory, would make an excellent screenplay. Bog Child, linking Ireland’s ancient past with its painful ‘present’ (the book is set in the 1980s, at the height of the Troubles), would also be incredible to watch on the big or small screen. I don’t think either of these stories has ever been adapted for TV, but they really should be. Relevant, punchy, full of guts and heart and emotion, they’d really work well. They’re also fantastic stories, with just a touch of magic and a deep, compassionate humanity at their core. The very best sort of writing, in fact. Someone get on this?

Zooming In

You may remember me posting, a while back, about writing the story you want to write instead of the story you feel you should write, and how you should always try to be true to your own voice and heart’s desire when working on a piece of fiction.

I’m not about to take it all back now, or anything. Don’t worry. I still believe, one hundred percent, in what I said in that post.

But what happens when you feel like you really can’t hear the song your heart is singing? What happens when, for whatever reason, you’re too tired or fried or worn out to make sense of the story-shards in your dried-out brain? This has been happening to me, for loads of reasons, over the past few weeks. I’ve finished with ‘Emmeline’ – for the time being, at least. It’s not on my radar at the moment, at any rate. I have other ideas, some of which – like ‘Eldritch’ – are at quite an advanced stage, and others which are mere shades, ideas, blobs of inspiration. I want to work on something else; in fact, I need to.

But whenever I try, all I get is a wall.

Photo Credit: littlelouderplease via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: littlelouderplease via Compfight cc

I tried to begin drafts of two new ideas last week. One of them was going reasonably well until I started to think about it editorially; then, I scuppered myself. ‘This won’t work, and that won’t work, and this is silly,’ I told myself, picking through my proto-story. Then, I lost all faith in it, and I gave up. I started something else, but it didn’t even last a whole chapter before sputtering out. This was stressful, and frustrating, and not a little scary.

So, for a day or two, I stood aside. I left it be. I worked on other things. I read a bit. I tried to relax.

And I made a list.

Sometimes, in order to find your heartsong, you’ve got to zoom in on what you love. Nothing focuses me like lists; I’m a big fan of to-do lists and shopping lists and Christmas lists, and what have you. This list, however, was a different type of list than any I’ve made before. It was a list of themes in all the books I adore, and which have shaped my life – or, at least, all the books I adore which came to mind during a brainstorming session. I didn’t overthink it; I didn’t look at my bookshelves; I didn’t censor myself. I just let my mind flood with thoughts, and I picked through what I found. I wanted this list to be as natural and instinctive as possible, and so I didn’t want to influence myself too much. I wanted to think of the books without pressure or influence, and I wanted to think of their themes without too much effort. If I found I was struggling to remember something, I moved on to the next section of the list. I typed it all out with my eyes shut, thinking as freely and as loosely as I could.

And it was a very interesting experience.

I spent fifteen minutes doing this (it’s important, when brainstorming, to give yourself a time limit) and I came up with fifteen authors, which is a neat coincidence. I began by thinking of books I loved, but that quickly morphed into authors whose books I love, so I just let it flow. The usual suspects came first: Alan Garner, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, but strangely, I almost forgot Terry Pratchett. He only barely swooped on to the end of my list of things I love, and I added him with a guilty feeling, wondering how on earth I could have left him off.

Like I said, doing a brainstorming list like this can really reveal things to you.

Then, I listed out the things I love in each author’s work. These could be themes, or particular storylines, or ways of writing, or treatments of characters, or all of the above; some of them were encapsulated in a single word, while others took sentences. There was no shape or rhyme or reason to this: I had no minima or maxima. I simply stuck down whatever came to me. Some authors had twenty beloved things; others had fewer than ten. I had more items after Frances Hardinge’s name than anyone else’s, which didn’t surprise me, but hot on her heels was Celine Kiernan, which was interesting. It’s funny what you discover about your own reading habits when you just let your brain take over! Saint-Exupery, an author I’ve loved all my life, had the fewest beloved things, at eight in total – Hardinge had twenty-five.

Then, it was time to analyse my findings. I went through all my lists to see whether there were shared items between them, and if there were, exactly how many and how often they appeared.

Magic appeared thirteen times.

Siblings and/or family appeared twelve times.

Mythology and/or folklore appeared ten times.

Other worlds appeared eight times.

Loyalty appeared six times.

Other themes included ‘Interesting adult characters’, ‘High stakes’, ‘Travel’, ‘Technology’, ‘Mystery’, ‘Animals’, ‘Alternate history’, ‘Self-respect’, ‘Quest’, ‘Psychology’, ‘Individuality’, ‘Risk’, ‘Bravery’, ‘Unspoken but understood emotion’, ‘Friendship’ and ‘Maturity.’

These are the things I love in the books I love. These themes, when given free rein to emerge, are the ones which floated to the top of my mind. These things are what make stories important to me, and what make them meaningful. These are the things upon which I’ll hang my creativity, and the notes I’ll use to make up my heartsong. Finding them really helped me to focus, and bring my spinning mind under control, and it also helped me to sketch out story arcs for some of the ideas that are clattering around inside my head.

This listing technique is something I’ll definitely use again if I feel my brain getting out of whack, and I’d recommend it to you, if you’re looking for ways to zoom in on what’s important and find inspiration. If you do give it a try, let me know how it goes for you.


In Which Mildwyn the Robin Comes to Stay

Um. Hello? Hello, everyone. My name’s Mildwyn.

Brrr. It's cold here!

Brrr. It’s cold in this silly country!

I’m a robin, as you can see, and I’m new around here. (I thought it was a bit scary at first, but don’t tell anyone. I mean, there’s a gargoyle living in this house! How weird is that? Even though he’s actually very nice, when you get to know him. But still). You might be wondering how I came to be here, and – well. It’s a long and sorry tale. I came across the world in a tiny box, you see, and I got lost on the way. I was sure I was never going to make it all the way to Ireland but then, just as everyone had given up on me, it all came good. Gripping, isn’t it? I think so. Maybe they should make a movie out of it.

Here I am with my new friends. Cuthbert is the smaller of the two (he’s the gargoyle, but ssh! Don’t tell him I told you), and Buddha’s on the other side. He’s quiet, is Buddha. Does a lot of smiling, but not a lot else. Cuthbert’s the chatty one.



You may have met them before, he tells me.

The first thing they did was bring me to see the Hardinge collection. (Keep it to yourself, but I’m really not sure what that is. I oohed and aahed at all the right times, though, and tried to look impressed. Cuthbert took a photo for posterity).

Ooh. Aah. (I have no idea what I'm doing here).

Ooh. Aah. (I have no idea what I’m doing here).

Afterwards, Cuthbert told me that the lady who wrote all the books in the Hardinge collection is one of the best writers in the world. I don’t know how he knows, but he was pretty sure about it, so I guess he must be right. The covers were pretty, though. One of them even matched my feathers, almost!

Did you know robins are supposed to live outdoors? When we left the Hardinge collection, Cuthbert kept trying to shove me out the windows, telling me to ‘fly’ (he didn’t seem to understand that I’d already flown halfway across the world, and he told me that didn’t count, which I thought was a bit mean, but we’re friends again now). I did go and have a peep outside, but it seems far too cold out there for me. I come from a hot country, don’t you know? I’m not ready for all this frost, and stuff. Nope.

I don't see any other birds out there. I think Cuthbert's pulling my leg!

I don’t see any other birds out there. I think Cuthbert’s pulling my leg!

Plus, when we went into the living room there was another robin there. He was bigger than me and he was a bit on the quiet side, but Cuthbert made a rude face when I told him ‘Look! This robin’s not outside, but you’re not shoving him out the window, are you?’

But don’t worry. We made friends again. I think it might take him a little time to get used to me, though. I’m not sure why. I have a feeling it’s because the human who lives here (well, there are two, but I’m talking about the shorter one, who spends a lot of time on her own, talking to herself) got emotional when I hopped out of my box yesterday. She got a bit teary-eyed and sobby, you know what I mean? I don’t know why. But she was smiling, too, so I guess it was a good thing.

Who knows, eh? Humans. They’re all a bit weird. Not like us robins.

Here's me and the other robin. He was a bit too interested in posing for the camera to say hi, if I'm being honest.

Here’s me and the other robin. He was a bit too interested in posing for the camera to say hi, if I’m being honest.

Anyway, Cuthbert loves this short, strange human and so I suppose he feels a bit jealous that now he has to share her love with me. But she looks like the type who has plenty of love for all of us. I don’t think he needs to worry too much.

My favourite bit of the tour was meeting Elfie. She lives among the books, like a guardian (even though Cuthbert wants me to point out that he’s the guardian of the whole house, which includes all the books, and Elfie is only his helper, so that’s clear). Anyway, Elfie was very lovely.

Can you even see me? Hello! I'm utilising my camouflage here. Hee hee!

Can you even see me? Hello! I’m utilising my camouflage here. Hee hee!

So, phew. That was a lot to fit into one day, right? I’m off now to get some rest and find out what robins eat. Things are very different here than they were in Australia, where I was born, but I’m sure I’ll be very happy. One thing’s for sure: the short weird human loves me, and that’s all I need. I think she’ll take great care of me, and of Cuthbert and Buddha and Elfie too, and even that silly poser robin on the mantelpiece. I think I might have to learn to read, though, because there are a lot of books here, and they all look awesome.

It was so much fun to meet you all. I’m sure I’ll see you all soon! This is Mildwyn the robin, signing off, but if you need me you know where to find me.

(And if you don’t find me where I’m s’posed to be, ask Cuthbert. He seems to know everything around here).


My sincere thanks to my gentle friend Kate for making my beloved Mildwyn and sending him across the world to me for my birthday present. I hope this post will help you not to fret about your dear little robin, Kate, and reassure you that he’s among friends! (Don’t worry – I’ll keep an eye on Cuthbert) – S.J.

Underappreciated Stories

Sometimes, the flood of books surrounding us, as readers, can seem overwhelming. With the internet allowing anyone who wishes to self-publish, as well as the traditional publishing industry which, though under pressure, is still chugging away, and the sheer amount of books already published, in every language, it sometimes boggles my mind that so many books exist, and I will only ever read a tiny fraction of what’s out there.

Having said that, sometimes I look through my bookshelves (which are groaning, yes) and realise that even if for some reason books stopped being published tomorrow (what a nightmare!) I would have a collection of stories already amassed which would likely keep me entertained for the rest of my life. In preparing for this post I checked through some of my collection and found books I’d forgotten I owned, or ones I read so long ago that I could use a refresher, or ones which I love but which don’t seem to get talked about much anymore. Not every book can retain stellar status, of course: sometimes, really excellent books get published and for whatever reason fall beneath the flood. Hugely talented authors get ‘forgotten’, except among the people who love them.

This is a shame.

I adore Alan Garner, as anyone who knows me will be aware, but he’s an author whose (passionate, devoted) fanbase is small. I also love the work of Frances Hardinge, who – for some reason, unknown to me – is an author who is about one-fifth as well-known and widely read as she ought to be, but like Garner she attracts a passionate fanbase. It’s wonderful to have such a heartfelt following, but there are other authors whose work I love and who seem not to have the same sort of fanbase – so this post is for them.

Jenny Nimmo

The Snow Spider Trilogy, Egmont, 2005. Image copyright: SJ O'Hart

The Snow Spider Trilogy, Egmont, 2005.
Image copyright: SJ O’Hart

Jenny Nimmo has been writing for young readers for years, and she is probably best known for her series about Charlie Bone, the Children of the Red King books. However, my favourite of her works is her magnificent Snow Spider Trilogy, which encompasses The Snow Spider, Emlyn’s Moon and The Chestnut Soldier, and which are masterworks of fantasy fiction. The stories introduce us to Gwyn Griffiths, a boy who is given five magical gifts on his ninth birthday, and who uses them to get to the bottom of the mystery of what happened to his sister Bethan, who disappeared when he was a younger child. Gwyn has magical lineage, being descended from the wizards of Welsh folklore, but his parents don’t hold any truck with nonsense like that – and so it’s up to Gwyn to prove to them that it’s the truth, as well as deal with newfound powers. I love these books for loads of reasons, Nimmo’s beautiful writing in the main but also their sensitive and delicate treatment of Welsh mythology and folklore (which, incidentally, is something she shares with another author, further down this list). Nimmo is still writing, and her work has been adapted for the stage, but for some reason she’s not talked about as much as I’d like. So, she’s top of my list of underappreciated masters. Check her out.

Kevin Crossley-Holland

So, yeah. I have loads of reasons to love Kevin Crossley-Holland’s work, namely because as well as being a wonderful children’s author he’s also an Anglo-Saxonist who has lectured and taught for many years – so, he covers all the bases, for me. Only the other day I remarked to someone how often it happens that people who write for children are also medievalists – Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Crossley-Holland – or have an interest in medieval folklore or mythology. Clearly, if you have the sort of mind which appreciates the myths of medieval Europe, you’re onto a winner when it comes to imaginative literature. In any case, I’ve read Crossley-Holland’s creative and non-fiction work, and I love it all, but his trilogy of books about Arthur (later expanded with a fourth book), The Seeing-Stone, At the Crossing-Places, and King of the Middle March (with Gatty’s Tale being the latter book) are simply wonderful. They look at the life of a medieval boy named Arthur – but not the Arthur – who is growing up, becoming a knight in the usual fashion, and who has a magical seeing-stone which shows him the life of the other Arthur, hundreds of years before. In the seeing-stone, a piece of obsidian, he watches scenes unfolding which seem to him to mirror the challenges and stresses he is facing, and which his namesake – the glorious and legendary king – also faced. I adore these books; they’re beautiful. So, check him out, too.

Catherine Webb

Catherine Webb published her first book at the age of fourteen, and it was spectacular. Entitled Mirror Dreams, it was about a fantasy world wherein dreams – good ones and bad ones alike – exist within the Kingdoms of the Void. When the Lords of Nightkeep kill the king of Dreams, and people all over the world begin to fall asleep and not wake up, it is up to Laenan Kite – an inhabitant of Dream – to save the day. I couldn’t believe this book was written by such a young author; Webb’s command of language, dialogue and characterisation (not to mention the sheer scope of her plotting) left me flabbergasted. I adore her books about Horatio Lyle, too, a detective in a version of Victorian London who gets into all manner of scrapes with his two teenage sidekicks and his faithful dog, Tate. Webb has a gift for snarky, humorous dialogue and excellent interplay between characters, and I don’t feel her books get enough attention. She is currently writing under another name, and has achieved great success with that, but check out her early work, too. It’s marvellous.

Catherine Fisher

I’ve mentioned Catherine Fisher on the blog before, I’m sure (and check out this Saturday’s book review, wherein she’ll be mentioned yet again!) but the reason for this is: she doesn’t get half the credit she deserves, in my opinion.

Red Fox (imprint of Random House Children's Books), 2002, edition of 'Corbenic' Image credit: SJ O'Hart

Red Fox (imprint of Random House Children’s Books), 2002, edition of ‘Corbenic’
Image credit: SJ O’Hart

Catherine Fisher has written some of the most imaginative and thrilling stories I’ve ever read, and again she has a certain medieval-archaeological-historical feel to her work, which underpins but in no way overwhelms it. As well as Corbenic, above (of which more on Saturday), she has written the beautiful Snow-Walker Trilogy, the amazing Darkhenge, about the forces which can be unleashed when people unwittingly disturb things they shouldn’t, and the masterwork Incarceron, about a sentient prison, as well as many more. She has, in short, written so much that even an uber-fan like me hasn’t read all of it, but I really think she’s a writer who isn’t read widely enough or appreciated deeply enough. Her way with words, her soft touches of folklore, her use of Welsh mythology, her beautiful dialogue, her compassionate handling of relationships and the psychology behind her characters is second to none.

So. There you have it. Some of my ‘hidden gems’, which I hope you’ll check out (Christmas is coming, after all!), and perhaps, in time, you’ll be the one passionately spreading the word about these authors, and their work.

Are there any writers who, in your opinion, are underappreciated? I’d love to hear about them! On second thought, my bookshelves are looking a bit thin…

Travels with a Gargoyle

Hullo, everybody. I’m Cuthbert.

How d'you do!

How d’you do!

No – don’t run away! Wait. I’m quite nice, really, even though I am a gargoyle. The truth cannot be hid in the matter of my appearance, sadly, but the soul within the body is what’s important. Right? Anyway, I’ve lived with the human who writes this blog for years and years now, and I’m very important.

How important, I hear you ask?

This important.



Yes. That’s me – hello again! – and my buddy Buddha (geddit?) in our roles as guardians of our human’s Terry Pratchett collection. I’m not sure if you know how much our human loves Terry Pratchett, but let me just tell you it’s a lot. A whole lot. Probably more than she loves anything, except maybe that other tall human who we sometimes see lumbering about the place talking about server arrays and bandwidth and static ISPs (no, I don’t understand any of it, either). They seem to be fairly fond of one another, though.

Not that we’re jealous. Are we, Buddha?


Anyway, I’m taking over the blog today because my human has ‘run out of brain space’ – or, at least, that’s what she tells me. Lots to do, she says, and no time to do it, and so she asked me if I’d take her lovely readers on a quick tour of her bookshelves. She and the tall human got some new ones at the weekend, y’see, and they’re ever so proud of them. There used to be piles of books all over the place – reminded me rather a lot of that dusty old tower I used to live in back in the day, lots of bells ringing if I remember – nope, it’s gone. Clean forgot the name! I’m sure it’ll come back to me. Anyhow, the piles of books lying around looked rather pretty, but my human and her human got a bit down in the mouth about all the mess, so they moved some stuff around and now they have more space for books! And that’s wonderful, of course.

(I just hope they don’t adopt any more gargoyles. One gargoyle per household is plenty, don’t you think?)

Here’s the first wonderful thing about the new bookshelves.



My human loves this lady, Frances Hardinge, nearly as much as she loves Terry Pratchett. But before – you remember, when all the books were piled around the floor – her Frances Hardinge books were all over the place. She could never find them when she wanted them. But now, look! They all live together happily on one shelf, and whenever my human sees them snuggling up together like this, she actually claps.

It’s embarrassing, really. But we put up with it, Buddha and me, because we’re loyal guardians. Also, we’re very patient.

Here’s a bigger view of two of the new sets of shelves. Can you imagine that, once upon a time, all these books were on the floor? It was very hazardous for little people creatures, like Buddha. Not me, though – I’m far too tough to be squished by books.

Still, though. It’s nice to have them neatly placed. High up. Where they won’t fall over.

I included myself for scale. D'you see me? Helloo!

I included myself for scale. D’you see me? Helloo!

But my human’s favourite new thing is this:

Me with some silly book. I don't know. Humans are weird.

Me with some silly book. I don’t know. Humans are weird.

This book (the one facing out, I mean, which I’m taking extra care to guard because that’s how I roll, okay) was a present, she says, from someone very lovely and important, and now that there’s loads of space, she can put it in pride of place.

I don’t know. It’s a book about some island called Tasmania, right? But it’s not a book about gargoyles. I don’t see how it could possibly be interesting, but then my human is a pretty weird creature, so we have to make allowances for that.

Well, that’s about it from me. I hope you enjoyed this little tour of my human’s bookshelves! It was great to meet you all, and remember – no home is complete without a gargoyle. Just sayin’.

(You can’t have me, of course. I’m taken. Just so you know. But there are loads of others who are just waiting to be loved… I mean, employed. As book-guardians and confidantes. And things.We’re multi-functional, you know? Definitely not just pretty faces. If you like the sound of bells, even better…)




Book Review Saturday – ‘A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair’

I first heard about this book in an interview given by Frances Hardinge, an author whose work I absolutely love. Her new book, Cuckoo Song, was published in early May and, when she was asked about books which influenced her writing of that story, she mentioned A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair and how much she loved it as a child. It sparked my interest immediately.

Image: bookdepository.com

Image: bookdepository.com

First published in 1980, A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair is hard to get now – which is where having a good relationship with an obliging bookshop can go a long way. The edition I have is the one pictured (badly) above, a reprint issue from 2007. It’s a short, fast-paced and deceptively simple book which ends up making a huge statement about humanity and morality, all without getting too caught up in fancy language or over-explication. It’s a lesson, in fact, in how a good story doesn’t need too much embellishment.

As the book opens we are introduced to Brin Tuptal, a twelve-year-old genius with an IQ of 180, who is being ushered into a meeting with the Seniors of his city. Straight away, the reader is struck by the strange reversal of roles – Brin, the child, is shown deference; the elders are the ones who are ‘lesser’, and Brin speaks to them without consideration for their age – at least, at first. Brin is owed – and demands – respect, due to the fact that he is young, and therefore priceless. He lives in a future version of earth in which the human population has been decimated due to a long-ago nuclear disaster which resulted in a rapid loss of fertility and a massive drop in birthrate. Children are prized, and spoiled.

Brin is interrogated about his world and its norms – a very quick (if rather graceless) way of alerting the reader to the strangenesses of this future Earth. One of the questions he is asked concerns Reborns – what are they? Who are they? What use are they? – and we realise that the Reborns are clones, cooked up from leftover genetic matter. But they are not clones of people who are living, or even those recently deceased – for what would be the point in cloning, and bringing back to life, a person who was sterile, as the vast majority of people now are? These Reborns are people from the distant past whose genetic material (i.e. their remains) have been used to ‘reanimate’ them. The Seniors tell Brin that he will be included in an experiment to see if the Reborns are the answer to repopulating the planet, without telling him exactly what the experiment involves.

Brin is then ushered into a room which looks utterly different to anything he’s ever seen before. It has something called a ‘range’, and an icebox, and a fireplace, and a wireless, and battered old furniture, and it is small, and low-ceilinged, and dark… Brin is told then that the Reborns he is about to meet lived during 1940, and this room is designed to mimic the environment they would have been used to. Two children – Brian (the name is significant) and Mavis – then appear to him, along with an older lady whose relationship to them isn’t really explained. She is called Mrs Mossop, a hard-working woman who never takes a moment’s rest. The children begin to play with Brin, introducing him to things like toast and Marmite, and ludo, and Monopoly, and talking incessantly about Hitler and the war. He tells them that he is to live with them until his uncle Rick arrives from the Bahamas to collect him – but there is no uncle Rick, of course. He meets with no resistance, because the Reborns have been programmed to accept him, and not to question where they are.

But if they leave the room that the Seniors and their scientists have recreated for them, something dreadful will happen…

An alternate, long out of print cover for the book

An alternate, long out of print cover for the book. Image sourced: amazon.co.uk

Brin goes back and forth between the experiment and his own world, gradually realising that he likes Brian, Mavis and Mrs Mossop more and more. He begins to see that they are individuals, people worthy of respect and dignity and not mere lab-rats to be experimented upon. He knows that the Seniors have plans to destroy them, beginning with Mrs Mossop, and he knows he has to do something – and then, out of a moment of desperation, something like a miracle occurs. Something the Seniors could not have anticipated…

A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair is one of the most unique books I’ve read. As I said at the start, it’s not a sophisticated book, certainly not by today’s standards, but it’s definitely one that’s hard to put down. The language is simple, the descriptions basic, the dialogue expository and not terribly nuanced, but it’s the characters which bring this book to life. Mavis, Brian, Mrs Mossop and Brin, in particular, along with Tello (one of the Seniors) jump off the page and immediately demand to be loved and taken to heart. The slow unfolding of Brin’s realisation – that past ages were not peopled with mindless savages, and that the cold cruelty of his own age is comparable with anything that could have been done in the the past – is touching, and, as Frances Hardinge said in the interview I linked to at the top of this post, the twist at the end really made me think.

I’m not sure this is a book which would appeal to kids of today, and I think that’s sad. There’s a lot to be gained from reading it, particularly in relation to ideas of individuality and the value of the human spirit. I was struck, too, by how much of the ‘futuristic’ society has already come to pass in one way or another, particularly the ‘state’ having access to all your personal data, and every citizen having to wear an ID which contains everything about them and which must be surrendered to any authority figure on demand… In a way, it mimics the ‘papers’ that everyone had to carry in wartime Britain, but in another it’s a scary reminder of how centralised power can rob the individual of their personhood, and how much of our humanity we lose when we allow machines to run too much of this world in which we have to live.

Or perhaps that’s my innate techno-skeptic coming out again.

Anyway, if you can get your hands on a copy of this book, I’d recommend giving it a go. Bear with it in the opening chapter or two, and you’ll be rewarded with a thoughtful and philosophical little tale.



Book Review Saturday – ‘Cuckoo Song’

When you read as many books as I do, sometimes it can feel like you’ve read everything before. It takes a rare book to stun me and shake me by the shoulders and say ‘look! I am full of wonders you’ve never ever seen, nor even dreamt of, in all your life.’

Frances Hardinge’s newest masterpiece, Cuckoo Song, is one of those books.

Image: panmacmillan.com

Image: panmacmillan.com

Frances Hardinge’s work is consistently excellent. She is in a league of her own when it comes to language; her sentences are full and fragrant, like rivers bubbling over with words sleek and plump as otters. Simply reading her work is an experience in itself, leaving aside the fact that she can create characters who feel more real than you do and plots which make you actually want to live inside the book you’re reading – even when (mostly when) what’s happening is terrifying. I’ve been in mourning for this book ever since I finished it. I forced myself to linger over it because I knew I didn’t want it to end, even though the end, when it came, was unbearably beautiful.

Stylistically, Cuckoo Song is similar to Verdigris Deep, another of Hardinge’s books set in the contemporary (or near-contemporary) world. Dealing with ancient magic which disrupts the lives of ordinary children, Verdigris Deep is every bit as luscious and beautiful as Hardinge’s other books, set in alternate realities (check out my review of A Face Like Glass for more on how excellent her world-building skills are), but its familiar setting takes away nothing from its power. Cuckoo Song is similar in that it is also set in a recognisable world, the Britain of the 1920s, which is reeling in the wake of the Great War and attempting to deal with the giant psychological wound at the heart of society by covering it over and carrying on as though nothing was amiss. This idea – that of reality being ripped to pieces and there being no other way to deal with it than by ignoring it – is one of the central concerns of the story, as is the idea of what makes a family; is it the people who form it, or the bonds which bind them? Is it the roles they play and the house in which they live, or is it the love they have for one another? Is it whether disruption to their unit – in the form of a lost member or an unexpectedly gained one – brings them closer together or drives them further apart?

Triss Crescent is eleven, and her younger sister Pen is nine. They live with their parents in a beautiful home in Ellchester, where they reside in some luxury with a household staff and a genteel car. Mr Crescent is a civil engineer involved with the design and building of the bridges and railway stations and homes in the city, as more and more of the wild countryside is tamed, mapped, charted and brought under control. Unmentioned by name is the girls’ older brother Sebastian, who fell in battle in 1918, and whose room has remained untouched ever since. Mrs Crescent drinks restorative, medicinal ‘wine’ to keep her calm of an afternoon, and the girls do not always get on, to say the least. Mr Crescent buries himself in his work and the esteem in which he is held by the members of his community. They survive.

And then Triss has an accident one day, and wakes up different.

She has an insatiable appetite – and not just for food items. Her sister Pen seems to hate and fear her. Her parents try to keep her ‘safe’, locked away, resting. Her memories are scattered and fragmented, and everywhere she goes there are dried leaves and flecks of dirt, as though she has been dragging herself through the soil of the garden without realising or remembering it.

Gradually, she begins to put together what has happened to her. Bravely intercepting a frightening creature who is doing inexplicable things in the bedroom of her dead brother, she discovers who, or what, she has become – and she finds out where she needs to go to get the answers which can unlock not only her own fate, but that of everyone she loves. Her sister is in danger, but her brother is in an even more perilous situation, and only Triss has the means by which to restore her family, no matter what it takes.

The astonishing Frances Hardinge. Image: thebooksmugglers.com

The astonishing Frances Hardinge.
Image: thebooksmugglers.com

It’s impossible to synopsise this book without giving away too much about it, but the title is a huge clue as to what has befallen Triss. The story draws on folklore and ancient belief, using traditional wisdom and superstition like iron thread through the fabric of the text. Every single character Hardinge draws, particularly Pen (the small sister whose angry and heartbroken decision at the beginning of the book draws Triss into a mess her father had already started while trying to navigate the fog of his own grief) is a flesh-and-blood, psychologically complex individual. Every decision made, every deed done, every reaction, every piece of dialogue, every moment of the action, is as real and true as if it had actually happened. Cuckoo Song is one of the most perfectly formed and beautifully realised pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, in any genre. I wouldn’t change so much as a syllable, and it is not even a word too long or short.

Cuckoo Song is plangent and moving; it is poignant and meaningful. It has plenty to say about the nature of memory, about monstrosity, about family and nation and loyalty. It deals with the passing away of an old system and set of values and its rapid, messy and painful replacement with another. It is about finding what is real and true amid a sea of things which look real and true, but which are impostors. It is about what happens when you find what is authentic in an unexpected place, the last place you’d have thought to look for it. It’s about grief and loss and love, and the final terrible necessity of letting go.

It’s perfect. I can’t say more than that. If you haven’t read it yet, you really should.


Content Warning

I am currently reading a book so brilliant that it’s actually a painful effort to put it down and get on with the rest of the stuff I have to do, like sleeping and eating and writing. It’s a book written for older children/young teenagers (its heroine is eleven – sort of); it involves magic and baddies and scary things happening in dark rooms and the terrifying power of scissors. It features a creature who cries cobwebs.

It’s fantastic.

Of course, it won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that, no matter how hard I try to be young in spirit and wrinkle-free of face, I am far more aged than the average reader of a book like this. In recent weeks there was a small furore about adults reading books written for children or teenagers and how we should all be ashamed of our juvenile tastes (I’m sure you can all guess what I thought of that). However, what’s on my mind this morning is something similar: are the themes in children’s books becoming more suited to adult readers?

Image: stevewhibley.blogspot.com

Image: stevewhibley.blogspot.com

As well as creatures made of twigs and strange messengers from Other places and magical upside-down worlds, the book I’m currently reading takes the Great War as a backdrop for part of its story: bereaved parents of fallen soldiers, left-behind fiancées whose beloved boys never came home, young men broken and hollow-eyed as a result of what they experienced in the trenches, present in person but absent forever in spirit, are all over it. The story is suffused with the sensibilities of a passing age, a turning from innocence to experience, a shattering of the traditions that had once bound society together and the beginnings of a new and uncharted way of life, one in which women expected to work and the paterfamilias in all its senses was starting to become less relevant. In one way, of course, nothing could be more important to a children’s story; those feelings of change and transformation and turning define a person’s life when they’re on the cusp of becoming an adult. In another, though, I can’t help thinking that while the general feeling created by all this tragic historical detail will add to a child’s reading experience, that in truth it’s designed to appeal to older readers, ones who will understand the symbolism in a deeper way.

I’ve blogged before on the absurd notion that certain topics are ‘unsuitable’ for children (including dark themes, death, good and evil, frightening things, ghosts and loss and challenges to identity, among plenty of others), and these same topics (albeit in different concentrations, perhaps) turn up regularly in adult books too. It’s probably natural, then, that there’ll be ‘bleeding’ between them; children need to read what they want to read, and these fictional explorations of change and discovery, courageous resistance in the face of evil and self-sacrifice in order to save a loved one are as important for young readers as they are for older ones. It’s also true that an adult reader will bring a different mental focus to a book than a child will, and themes will be read and understood differently depending on the age and experience of the reader; the same story might mean one thing to a child reader and something entirely different, something more, to an adult.

Perhaps it has always been this way. Charlotte’s Web, for instance,features sacrifice and the threat of slaughter and the overwhelming power of friendship. Children might get a message of love and unity from it, where adults might bring their own sense of nostalgia and their greater awareness of the passing of time to the story. The poignancy of Charlotte’s struggle might mean more to them, for they know, from the beginning, that Charlotte cannot live forever. Perhaps the mastery in the book I’m currently reading lies in the fact that it works on a multitude of levels: it’s a story about the encroachment of magic into a family and the struggles of two young girls to outsmart it, but it’s also a story of the increasing industrialisation of society, particularly after the slaughter of the Great War. It’s a tale of the machinery which ate huge chunks out of the countryside and the people who lived in it – and the traditional creatures and stories and legends who were also driven out. It’s a story about parental love for their daughters, but the hints of a darker reality are there too – an entitled class with more money than compassion, a woman who loves her own children but who has contempt for those of others. It’s a story of two girls who miss their big brother, a soldier who was lost in France in 1918, but it’s also the story of his lost life, the wife he never married and the children he never had.

Perhaps the books I love – the rich, textured, multi-layered, story-within-a-story books – haven’t started to incorporate ‘adult’ themes so much as I, the reader, have started to notice them. Perhaps, in reality, there are no ‘adult’ themes: good children’s books are as full of life and death and vitality as their adult counterparts. They are not lesser, not by any means, and no adult should be ashamed of reading anything which brings them pleasure, certainly not the masterpieces of children’s literature which contain more truth and beauty than shelf-loads full of the narcissistic nonsense which sometimes passes for ‘serious literature’. I love the idea that a child reader might love a book for reasons they can’t put their finger on; they might know there’s more to a story than they can grasp at a particular point in their reading life, but they resolve to come back to it later and read it again, gaining more and more from each re-read. I did this regularly as a kid, and (weird as I am) I’m sure I’m not alone. Those are the books we love at every stage of life, the ones which become part of our DNA. Adults coming to them can get the immeasurable joy of reading the story on all its levels at once, which is an experience like no other; children will treasure them all their lives.

Image: childrens-books-and-reading.com

Image: childrens-books-and-reading.com

Perhaps we should worry more about our intense need to police what people are reading than our desire to categorise books as ‘for one sector of society only.’ Of course there are books which are not suitable for children, and from which they should be kept, but I hate the thought that so many adults would be reluctant to open their minds to a wonderful story for children just because they feel it’s inappropriate for them to want to read it.

Read outside the box a little, is my advice. You might be surprised by what you find.