The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge

When Faith’s family moves suddenly to an out-of-the-way island to conduct an archaeological dig, they do so under threat of suspicion and fear, though fear of what Faith isn’t told. (She’s only fourteen, and nice young ladies in the year 1868 don’t ask questions.) But Faith herself hopes that this will be her opportunity to show her father, a prominent archaeologist, that she can be a scholarly companion to him, that she is worth taking seriously. Once they reach the island, though, it becomes clear that her worth remains what it has always been: She’s as valuable as the trouble she can save her family by behaving decorously and taking care of her little brother, Howard.

When tragedy strikes her family, Faith has to make use of all her cunning and bravery to delve into her father’s secrets — including the mysterious Lie Tree.

The Lie Tree

The Lie Tree is, with all the good and less good this implies, a very very Frances Hardinge sort of book. By which I mean that it’s slow to crank its story into gear, and you sit through quite a bit of table-setting before Hardinge lets you taste the meal; but when it does get going, you’re certain of a satisfactory conclusion. More Hardingely still, you can be sure that nobody in the book will be just one thing. If a character is kindly or catty or condescending early on, you are nearly guaranteed to see another side of them before the book is over.

Faith had always told herself that she was not like other ladies. But neither, it seemed, were other ladies.

I am mightily preoccupied with the not-one-thing-ness of people. It’s easy to take the quick and dirty route of learning a little about someone and allowing our biases to fill in the rest, even — maybe especially — when we are ourselves trying to fight free of other people’s restrictive narratives of what we are supposed to be like. The half-truths we tell ourselves about other people because it’s convenient aren’t the type of lies Faith thinks to feed to the Lie Tree, but the tree thrives on those untruths as well. While Faith badly wants to be seen for who she is, not just who she pretends to be, the conventions and norms of her time frequently blind her to the fact that the people around her are often as constricted as she is (and more).

Excellent stuff, all in all. Frances Hardinge knows how to get me with her Themes and Feelings and Ladies Who Seem One Way But Actually Have Hidden Depths Like All People Do. I’ll just leave you with this, my of-course favorite moment of the book:

“This is a battlefield, Faith! Women find themselves on battlefields, just as men do. We are given no weapons, and cannot be seen to fight. But fight we must, or perish.”

 

NB, Tulum: A Links Round-Up

Happy Friday, everyone! I have had a stupid week and am psyched for it to be over! So here are some links, as ever, for your delectation and delight.

First and most importantly, Book Blogger Appreciation Week is NEXT WEEK. I’ll be hosting a Twitter chat on Tuesday at 9 PM EST, and the blogosphere at large will be squeeing about our love for each other all week long. Don’t miss it.

#BBAW

I admit this has nothing to do with anything, but Caity Weaver’s GQ profile of Justin Bieber is magic.

It’s unsettling to share a personal story, or ask a long-winded question, and be met with Justin Bieber’s silent, cool-eyed stare the entire time you’re talking. Justin Bieber makes eye contact like a person who has been told that eye contact is very, very important.

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings is a fantastic blog that you should be following if you’re not already. Here she is on Aubrey Beardsley’s weird, attenuated illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s weird, attenuated play Salome.

Survey says: Publishing is super white. Dit dit dit. Alert the presses to this breaking news.

An interview with Frances Hardinge, author of The Lie Tree which DAMMIT I still haven’t read. It looks sooooooo goooooooood.

Why you can mash up Hamilton with litrally anything.

So, I am perfectly willing to believe, if given sufficient reason to do so, that multiple regression analysis is a garbage statistical method. On the other hand, this reads like Mickey Rooney in his latter years so I have grave concerns about its validity. THIS IS THE PROBLEM WITH NOT KNOWING EVERYTHING.

Elif Batuman on passing for Muslim in Turkey.

NPR’s Code Switch compiles a round-up of responses to Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance and new video “Formation.”

Rebecca Solnit on the CDC’s alcohol recommendations for women and the men who are missing from the narrative.

Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge

Note: I received an e-galley of this book from the publisher for review consideration.

My first experiment with Ana’s beloved Frances Hardinge was a mixed bag. A Face Like Glass started slow and continued very strange before getting abruptly very exciting towards the end. But Cuckoo Song looked more my speed from the word go, a story about Britain in World War I, about sisters, and about a changeling.

(British authors and cuckoos, have you noticed? They can’t resist them! The cuckoo has infilitrated the British subconscious and hatched its eggs there.)

Triss wakes up one day scrambling to recover her memories. With some effort, she’s able to recall her parents, father and mother, and her angry, rebellious sister Pen. But for the life of her she can’t remember the event that her parents say has made her ill, falling in the gammer nearby and having to crawl out of it again. She knows that Pen hates and resents her, and she knows that she is desperately, unceasingly hungry.

Like A Face Like Glass, Cuckoo Song is a little slow to start. Triss takes quite some time sorting out what I knew from the jump (cause title), and only after that do the true adventures begin. In the meantime, there’s plenty of groundwork to be laid for future plot and emotions, which could profitably have been pruned back without affecting the work they’re doing for the story. But once the full premise is out in the open, the book becomes hard to put down; and I read it all in a single sitting.

A spoiler follows that you could probably figure out on your own (cause title). My favorite type of changeling story is the type where the family keeps the changeling. This is the full premise of Brenna Yovanoff’s excellent The Replacement, and this year I’ve read two successive books — this and Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest — that each do something about kept changelings that I’ve never seen before. Triss’s realization that she’s not really Triss may be something of a foregone conclusion, but her journey to becoming a fully realized person in her own right is anything but.

Nestled comfortably into three of my particular sweet spots, Cuckoo Song is exciting and inventive without the studied whimsy of (parts of) A Face Like Glass. Frances Hardinge newbies will find it a perfect introduction to her particular brand of madness and suspense.

This has been my folklore read for the Once Upon a Time IX Challenge, which, I don’t want to be vain, but I am crushing it this year. Head over to the reviews page to see what everyone else has been reading.

Reviewlets

Here it is the middle of November, and I have to accept that I am never going to get full posts written on some of these books before the end of the year. So I am doing a small batch edition. First up, Max Brooks and Canaan White’s comic The Harlem Hellfighters, which I received from the publisher for review consideration, and am (eek!) reviewing rather belatedly. The Harlem Hellfighters were an all-black infantry regiment in World War I; they never lost a man through capture or gave up a foot of ground to the enemy. Rather touchingly, Max Brooks learned about this unit when he was eleven and has always wanted more people to know about their heroism in the First World War.

Harlem Hellfighters

Canaan White’s black-and-white line drawings are lovely, and you can’t help but be moved by the story. Throughout their training, the Hellfighters are subject to vicious prejudice from their fellow American soldiers on account of their skin color. They’re considered second-class citizens in the very country they’re fighting to defend, and every battle they fight is proof of their worth as men and as soldiers. I teared up a few times when Brooks quotes praise they received for their extraordinary bravery. However, Brooks doesn’t bring a lot of new stuff to this story. The characters aren’t very well-delineated; where the book succeeds, it’s because the history itself is an incredible story.

As travel writers go, I am fond of Guy Delisle, who writes cartoon memoirs of his time in various far-away nations. (His wife works for MSF, so the family travels.) Jerusalem, like all of Delisle’s books, focuses on the lived experiences of living in conflict-torn areas: the laws, yes, but most often the way people live within those laws, the workarounds they find, the small annoyances, the insane contradictions that arise from lawmakers failing to think their policies all the way through.

Honestly I will probably never travel to Israel (I have other places to go that do not cause me that same level of ideological and emotional stress), so I like to hear from Delisle what it’s like to be there. Do I depend on him for sophisticated political analysis? Nope, but the man writes  a reliably enjoyable travelogue.

Officially, I’m off Crazy Family Memoirs, but I checked the end of Brando Skyhorse’s Take This Man and was pleased to discover that his mother and grandmother are already dead. So the only person’s feelings to get hurt by this book would be Skyhorse’s biological father, with whom he reconnected a few years before the book was published. And that guy barely features. And he maybe should have his feelings a little bit hurt, because it’s not cool to ditch your kid even if the kid’s crazy mother is forcing your hand.

Take This Man is about Skyhorse’s string of fathers. The biological son of a Mexican, Skyhorse’s mother claimed that both she and he were Indians, and that he was the son of an Indian, Paul Skyhorse Johnson, in prison for resisting the government in some unspecified way. Over the course of his childhood, this was one of the least crazy lies she told him. Her perpetual hunt for a man to take care of her presented little Brando with stepfather after stepfather–each of whom his mother demanded he refer to as his father. Once one of the stepfathers took off, Brando’s mother insisted that that person had never been his father in the first place.

I think I’ve said before in this space that it feels weird to review family memoirs. I give your f*cked-up childhood three stars! Not enough knife fights to merit four! So I’ll just leave it by saying that I’d have enjoyed this book more if it had more jokes. Not because screwed-up childhoods have to be funny, but just because without jokes I get real sad about them.

Last but not least, I finally read my first! Ever! Frances Hardinge book! Long long long ago, the wonderful Ana sent me A Face Like Glass, and because it was slightly slow to start, I panicked and hid it under the couch to prevent myself from discovering that I didn’t like Frances Hardinge after all. Silly Jenny, I should never have worried that Ana would steer me wrong. Though the first third of A Face Like Glass contained more studied whimsy than I prefer, the second two-thirds more than made up for it. The premise is too insane for me to go into much detail about, so you will just have to believe me when I say that it’s worth sticking with. There is a final act that brings together everything that has happened up to that point in a wonderfully crazy and brilliant and intricate climax. With a message about social justice! (that is not too messagey)

Thanks, Ana! I am sorry it took me so long to read this! It . . . was under my couch for much of the year. Next up, Cuckoo Song!