Tag Archives: Macmillan Children’s Books

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.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Black Book of Secrets’

The Black Book of Secrets, F.E. Higgins’ debut novel (first published in 2007 by Macmillan Children’s Books) is a strange beast. It’s one of those books which grips the reader so hard at the start that you read on in a frenzy, desperate to find out what happens – but then, things sort of lose their momentum three-quarters of the way through. This is a real shame, because the book is so richly imagined and written – Higgins’ style reminded me of Frances Hardinge’s, in several places, and it’s unsurprising that they share a publisher – but for all that, I found myself vaguely disappointed with it, overall.

Image: inismagazine.ie

Image: inismagazine.ie

There’s a lot to love about the book’s opening. We meet Ludlow Fitch, a street urchin who lives with the most horrendous ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa’ imaginable, gin-fiends who think nothing of attempting to sell their son’s teeth (ripped unwillingly from his head!) to fund their drinking habits. Ludlow is accosted by his parents, dragged into a cellar, and faced with a terrifying ‘dentist’ bearing a large pliers, who is ready to relieve him of his chewing equipment – until, of course, he bravely fights his way to freedom, desperately clinging to the side of a passing stagecoach as it leaves the City in which he has lived his whole, miserable life. The coach brings him to the town of Pagus Parvus, where he fortuitously meets a mysterious man named Joe Zabbidou (the names of the characters and places in this book are a delicious, word-lovers’ marvel), and he soon falls under Zabbidou’s wing, becoming his assistant.

But what, exactly, does Zabbidou do? (Sorry – I couldn’t resist. Zabbidou-do-do!)

Ahem. Well, it appears that Joe Zabbidou makes his ‘living’ (if you can call it that) by buying people’s secrets. He is a Secret Pawnbroker, which is to say not a pawnbroker whose shop is hard to find, but a pawnbroker who pays good money for the deepest, darkest shreds of guilt in every human conscience. He asks people to tell him their secrets, and then Ludlow writes them down in the eponymous Black Book. What for? We don’t know. Where does he get the money to pay for all these secrets? We have to wait (a long time) to find out. How does a half-literate Ludlow suddenly become Zabbidou’s scribe, faithfully and quickly transcribing everything he hears? Er… well. Next question!

And this is the problem – or, one of them – with the book; too many unanswered questions. There’s a nifty conceit behind the story, which is this: Higgins inserts herself into her own novel, pretending to be a person who came across the fragmentary remains of Ludlow Fitch’s memoirs (she does, in all fairness, say that she corrected Ludlow’s dreadful spelling throughout, but I still don’t think this explains his ability to write so accurately), filling in the gaps with her own imagination to tell his and Joe Zabbidou’s story, but I wondered if this was necessary. We’re left wondering why Ludlow wrote his memoirs, for what purpose, why they ended up in a hollow wooden leg (the significance of which isn’t explained, but there is a sequel to this book, so it may well appear there), and what on earth made him so attractive as an apprentice to Joe Zabbidou. For one of the things I didn’t enjoy about this book was the fact that I didn’t have strong feelings, either way, about Ludlow himself. He’s an observer throughout, who – at least, to my mind – could have been lifted out of the plot without any discernible effect. He doesn’t do much (besides his breathtaking, and brilliant, escape at the beginning), and he sounds like an elderly Dickensian character throughout. Having said that, the language is fantastic, and the imagery is memorable, and the rhythm of the sentences is perfect, and the dialogue is sharp and witty, and I couldn’t fault the way this book was written – it gladdened my word-loving heart.

But, at one point, Ludlow makes an observation that he, Zabbidou and Polly (the maid to the local landlord-cum-oppressor, the baddie of the piece, Jeremiah Ratchet) were simply sitting at home, waiting for something to happen. That’s how I felt, at times, reading this book. Zabbidou was the hero, around whom the action was centred; Ludlow, our narrator and focus, was sidelined within his own story. The explanation at the end was comprehensive, certainly, and things fell into place, but I was still left with a feeling of ‘is that it?’

F.E. Higgins is certainly a great writer. I loved the way this book was written, and the world it created. I loved the descriptions of the City and Pagus Parvus, the houses and the foodstuffs and the clothes and the cobbles in the streets. I loved the details lifted from history – the Resurrectionists, the suspicion about where the meat in your pies was coming from, the fear of being buried alive – and I even liked the overall point behind the plot, that of the ineluctability of fate itself and how the smallest decision, or the smallest character, can be an instrument of Destiny. But because I couldn’t warm to Ludlow (he didn’t give me a lot to warm to), and the plot was somewhat meandering, and the religious symbolism was a little overdone, I think this book would be a middle-ranker, for me. Certainly, it’s worth reading for the richness of the language alone, and it’s a masterclass in subtle but effective description – but I can’t help feeling it could have been more. I’ve read synopses of Higgins’ newer series, The Phenomenals, which sounds, well, phenomenal, and so I think I might be inclined to try those next. Certainly, I don’t think the sequels to The Black Book of Secrets are for me, but I haven’t given up hope yet!

Book Review Saturday – ‘After the Snow’

I’ll say this about S.D. Crockett’s ‘After the Snow’: the cover image lets you know what you’re in for.

Image: panmacmillan.com

Image: panmacmillan.com

The book’s title, and the author’s name, are written in such small font that it’s easy to overlook them completely. What overwhelms, on the other hand, is the image of the dog skull and the hastily scribbled words all over the background – words which, we learn as we read, belong to Willo, our fifteen-year-old narrator. This is fitting, because ‘After the Snow’ is a book which does its best to absorb the reader into a world of its own making, a future world where the damage done to the environment in our present day has resulted in almost neverending winter. It uses Willo’s dialect and idiosyncratic language, and his relationship with the dog-spirit he carries with him, as well as the detailed and palpable descriptions of the crushingly cold landscape, to achieve this.

I’m not entirely sure it’s successful.

There were parts of this book which I really admired – the descriptions of the snowdrifted landscape, for one, and the sometimes beautiful language employed, as well as the fire at the heart of Willo’s character – but there were a lot of things about this book that I didn’t like so much. I found Willo’s dialect hard to process, at first, but it did get easier after a few pages; however, there were times when I found his voice frustrating. I did love the character, though, and his determination and bravery, so Willo kept me reading. I also found the book’s pacing difficult to understand – not a lot happens for at least the first half of the book, or at least that’s how it felt to me; it seemed that too much was then crammed into the second half, leading to a strangely offbeat ending.

As for the plot: Willo lives with his family, deep in the wilds of the Welsh countryside, far from the prying eyes of the totalitarian-seeming government. They eke out a living, and seem very happy – cold, deprivation and near-starvation notwithstanding. Lacking a formal education, or much exposure to the world outside his immediate family, Willo has a unique way of dealing with the world; he has a dog spirit, which he hears inside his head at moments of crisis. He wears a dog skull on his hat, and has made a cloak out of the dog’s tanned hide. I thought this was a marvellous touch, and really made Willo come alive for me. I only wish that S.D. Crockett had allowed more time to the voice of the dog, and made more use of it – I was hoping for a relationship like that between Todd and his dog Manchee in ‘The Chaos Walking’ trilogy, but it wasn’t to be. Nevertheless I thought it was a very realistic and touching detail, this relationship between Willo and his ‘dog’, and it more than anything else really described the world in which Willo and his family live.

Willo’s family have been taken away as the novel opens. We learn about his father Robin and his stepmother Magda, his sisters and brothers (particularly Alice, ‘who got a baby with [Geraint, their elderly neighbour]. And she only been fourteen’ (p. 25). We realise that Willo and his dog-spirit are alone now, without any idea where the family have been taken or why they are gone. Willo suspects Geraint is behind it, and goes on a mission to find his family and bring Geraint to justice. In the course of this he meets Mary, a young girl whose father has left her and her young brother Tommy in an abandoned house while he searches for food. Willo knows the children are doomed if he doesn’t help them, but the dog-spirit – in the interests of keeping Willo alive – counsels him to keep going and forget them. Eventually, he manages to rescue Mary, and she travels with him on his somewhat aimless journey toward retribution.

When the story moves to ‘the City’, it begins to pick up pace. We read about living conditions so dire that I could barely believe it, and a government with an iron grip on its people. Crime and cruelty are the orders of the day. Willo (in one of these annoying coincidences that can crop up in books, sometimes) becomes apprenticed to a man who can lead him right to a powerful woman who holds a life-shattering secret about Willo, and what has happened to his family; before he can escape to join them, however, he is apprehended by enemies he didn’t even realise he had.

This book is a strange juxtaposition of quiet and loud. For the first 130 pages or so, we have Willo in the wilderness, dealing with wild animals and hunger and cold; there are some gruesome scenes, particularly when he is trying to rescue Mary and her brother, but nothing too stomach-turning. Then, we come to the second half of the book, and it’s like someone switched the colour contrast up. There are scenes and descriptions of such horror that I wondered whether I was reading a book aimed at children – I think, despite the differences between it and a ‘typical’ YA book, this story is more suited to older teenagers – and there were times when I felt it was a little too graphic for me. I understand we’re dealing with a world in which people have to do anything they can to survive, and that doesn’t lead to civilised behaviour, but there were some scenes which will stay with me for a long time. It was powerful and effective storytelling, but rather bleak. The book’s ending seems to come out of nowhere, then, and – being honest – it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. The darkness that led up to it suddenly explodes into light, and it was a strange contrast. There were also so many brilliant details that we didn’t hear enough about, including why China is the new superpower in this strange world, and what ANPEC (the government entity keeping the City in lockdown) actually is. We meet several characters that seem pointless, serving only to get Willo out of a bind, and there isn’t enough detail about this world and how it operates to really get a handle on understanding it. I thought that was a shame, because there are some really excellent ideas in this book, and I would have liked to explore its story world a bit more deeply.

Having said all that, I enjoyed the book. I loved Willo and his strange, unique voice, and I loved Mary, the brave little girl who fights like a tiger for survival. The picture this novel paints of the future is horrifying, but that’s the point, I guess. It’s a future we’re heading for, with our eyes open. One aspect of the novel which I found strange was the vituperative way in which things like recycling and wind power were spoken about – they were decried as being worse than useless in a world which could have harnessed nuclear and large-scale solar power (huge banks of solar panels in Africa, which are owned and operated by China, are mentioned in passing); part of the blame for the state of the world is laid at the feet of those who were too busy sorting their rubbish and spending millions on ‘winfarms’, as Willo calls them, to bother about proper ways of dealing with the environment. I’m not sure I agree with that, entirely, but I do take the point. Unless something drastic is done, the world we will bequeath to our descendants is one not too far removed from that in which Willo lives – and I hope I won’t be alive to see it.

Give this one a go if you’re looking for a dystopian novel with a difference – just make sure you’ve a strong stomach for the second half.

Happy reading!

A replica of Willo's 'dog hat', which was offered as a prize by the publishers of 'After the Snow.' Image: goodreads.com

A replica of Willo’s ‘dog hat’, which was offered as a prize by the publishers of ‘After the Snow.’
Image: goodreads.com