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‘The Lie Tree’ by Frances Hardinge ****

Finding a book to read after submitting my Master’s dissertation this August has been one of the most daunting tasks of the past few months. Nothing I picked up seemed interesting enough to keep me reading and now I have several books of which the first ten to twenty pages have been read but have unfortunately been set aside for the time being.

9781509837564the lie tree illustrated edition_4The Lie Tree was almost one of those books. Usually, when I go through a reading slump I either read something I am certain I will like or something very short to get me back into reading. My copy of The Lie Tree with its 490 pages is definitely not a short read but it certainly sounded like one of those books I am bound to love since it contains mystery, fantasy and historical elements. Plus, the edition I own was illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell, whose work I first encountered through his collaborations with Neil Gaiman, and that certainly contributed greatly to my picking up this book.

The story takes place in Victorian England and it follows Faith, the daughter of a once renowned scientist whose recently bad reputation in society due to some scandal that arose from his research resulted in his family fleeing home and seeking refuge in a smaller town. Secrets never stay hidden for long, however, and their new society labels and mistreats their family again. Faith, being the curious and science-loving girl that she is, is determined to find out what her father’s research was all about and what discovery of his led to their family’s demise. The fantastic elements are not apparent from the outset but I couldn’t speak more about them without revealing some plot spoilers.

Perhaps due to its length, the story starts off in a rather slow manner and it takes the first hundred pages or so for the mystery and the actual plot to truly begin. I usually don’t mind slow books, but for a murder mystery book a slow start isn’t really the best introduction for the readers. The mystery itself, though, was very well crafted. For the very attentive reader the culprit might have been obvious from earlier on, but for me, suspecting everyone due to their dismissive behaviour towards Faith and her family, the revelation was quite a shock. The fantastic elements included, as I mentioned before, are not ever-present and fantasy has been inserted in the world of the book in a very crafty and believable manner.

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Chris Riddell’s stunning illustrations.

The writing is sometimes lyrical and others more practical, but beautiful nevertheless and very fitting to the entire atmosphere of the novel. I really enjoyed Faith’s character, a young girl growing up in an era when female curiosity and desire to learn was everything but rewarded and when women had to hide their research behind the name of a much more powerful and well-established man. The novel raises those issues in a subtle yet satisfying manner, as Faith’s indignation for her being treated unfairly by society and family alike merely for being a girl is evident throughout and is what ultimately empowers her and gives her courage to investigate the mystery surrounding her father. It reminded me somehow of Marie Brennan’s The Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which also centers around a lady scientist in Victorian era who struggles to get her research and scholarly profession accepted by society.

Overall, The Lie Tree is an utterly compelling novel which successfully combines mystery, fantasy, feminist and social issues, as well as a coming-of-age story. Although it starts off very very slowly, the pace picks up after a while and the story becomes so intriguing that it’s impossible to put it down. It’s also a very spooky story with many gothic elements, so I guess it’s a very fitting recommendation for Halloween as well. I’m very glad I didn’t put this book aside like all the rest that came before it, as it was definitely worth reading it.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

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‘The Sleeper and The Spindle’ by Neil Gaiman ****

Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and The Spindle is illustrated by Chris Riddell; here, the two have collaborated upon rekindling ‘their bestselling partnership for a beautiful and unique fairy tale that puts a daring queen at the very heart of the adventure’.  The blurb states that in ‘twisting together the familiar in the new, this perfectly delicious, captivating and darkly funny tale shows its creators at the peak of their talents’.

The day before her wedding, a young queen ‘sets out to rescue a princess from an enchantment’ which is fast engulfing the whole of the kingdom. Gaiman sets the scene immediately: ‘It was the closest kingdom to the queen’s, as the crow flies, but not even the crows flew it.  The high mountain range that served as the border between the two kingdoms [of Dorimar and Kanselaire] discouraged crows as much as it discouraged people, and it was considered unpassable’.  The enchantress who has cast the spell upon the castle in which the princess lies is ‘old as the hills, evil as a snake, all malevolence and magic and death’.  Throughout, the prose has a fable-like tone to it, and it reminds one of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in terms of some of the elements which converge to create the mini-plots within it.

The Sleeper and The Spindle is both imaginative and inventive.  The queen is a strong character, powerful both in terms of her standing within the kingdom, and her determination and actions.  The way in which the plot follows different characters at simultaneous periods works wonderfully.  The elements which Gaiman has woven in add depth to the original story, from the voyage of self-discovery which the queen takes, to friendship and loyalty.  Appearances are deceptive, however; whilst The Sleeper and The Spindle looks as though it is suitable for a very young audience, there is definite darkness within it, and not all of the scenes may be suitable for children.

The book itself is beautiful; the black and white illustrations are accented with gold paint, and the transparent dustjacket is a lovely touch.  So much thought has been put into the use of words and pictures, and they complement each other beautifully.  The Sleeper and The Spindle is certainly a very enjoyable fairytale retelling.

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Flash Reviews (24th April 2014)

‘Sarrasine’ by Honore de Balzac (Hesperus Press)

Sarrasine by Honore de Balzac ***
This is another lovely Hesperus Press edition which I found in my local library.  I don’t recall having read any Balzac before, aside from a couple of his short stories.  I really liked the premise of the title tale, which was first published in 1830:

‘At a fashionable party in Paris, an appalled young lady hears the story of a mysterious figure that haunts the elegant de Lanty household…’

This volume also contains another of Balzac’s short stories, an ‘orientalist fable’ entitled ‘A Passion in the Desert’.  Kate Pullinger, the author of the foreword, writes that ‘the two stories here… are very different from the work for which Balzac is revered…  Both stories are lush and over-ripe, heavily scented and hugely sensual, and in both tales true love is ultimately – murderously – thwarted’.  An accompanying introduction has been penned by David Carter, which is most informative with regard to how Balzac’s work has been both translated and interpreted.

Sarrasine uses the first person perspective throughout.  From the start it is vivid, and its descriptions are lyrical and lovely.  The entire piece is beautifully written.  Balzac describes his protagonists in such lively terms that it would not feel unusual if they were to step from the very page.  The story, too, is an intelligent one – there are many references to philosophy, literature, and historical figures and events – and it is also most peculiar.  It reminded me at turns of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Operaas it had a similar feel to it, along with shared elements of the plot.  Oddly, I did not enjoy the title story quite as much as I thought I would, and ‘A Passion in the Desert’ felt a little disappointing too.  Despite this, Balzac’s descriptions are so lovely that I cannot contemplate giving the book anything less than three stars.

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Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell ***

An illustration from ‘Ottoline and the Yellow Cat’ by Chris Riddell

I hadn’t planned to check this book out from the library, but it looked so utterly adorable that I couldn’t resist.  The book itself is a thing of beauty, with its dark red covers and delightful illustrations, all of which have been drawn by the author.  I wasn’t sure before I began to read where this book came in terms of the Ottoline series, but rather luckily, I managed to pick up the first.  I had high hopes that I would really enjoy it and could then consequently borrow them all.

Ottoline Brown, our child protagonist, lives in Big City, on the twenty fourth floor of the Pepperpot Building.  She likes solving crime and ‘working out clever plans even more than she liked splashing in puddles’.  She is such a likeable little thing, though from an adult perspective, I did find it weird that she lives solely with an indeterminate hairy creature named Mr Munroe, who supposedly came from a bog somewhere in Norway.  She is an only child, and her parents are invariably travelling to far-flung locations to collect odd things, like four-spouted teapots and portable fishbowls.  As you do. Ottoline is left with just Mr Munroe and many tradespeople for company.

In Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, ‘a string of daring burglaries have taken place in Big City and precious lapdogs are disappearing all over town.  Something must be done.’  Whilst the storyline itself wasn’t overly captivating for a non-dog lover, the format, with its illustrations on every single page, was darling, and I will certainly be reading more of the books which feature little Ottoline in future.

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‘Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns’ by Lauren Weisberger (Harper)

Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns by Lauren Weisberger ***
I really enjoyed The Devil Wears Prada book when I read it in my teens, and I also very much liked its subsequent film.  I had a feeling that I would be rather disappointed with its sequel, Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns, but I couldn’t resist checking it out of the library.  It is meant to occur ten years after The Devil Wears Prada, when protagonist Andy is running her own magazine and is about to get married.  At first glance, the premise works quite well:

‘… the night before her wedding, she can’t sleep.  Is it just normal nerves, or is she having serious second thoughts?  And why can’t she stop thinking about her ex-boss, Miranda – aka, the Devil?  It seems that Andy’s efforts to build herself a bright new life have led her directly into the path of the Devil herself, bent on revenge…’

Now, it is worth mentioning that whilst the title of this book is ‘The Devil Returns’, the aforementioned Miranda Priestley actually doesn’t appear in the novel very often.  When she does, her behaviour does not really follow what I remember of her from the first book either.  The story was rather easy to get into from the start, and although it was quite superficial and shallow throughout, as I expected it to be, it was definitely entertaining.  It is not the most literary of books, but as an easy, comforting read, it is relatively good.  Well, it is for the first half of the novel or so, anyway.

I remembered The Devil Wears Prada as a far more funny and amusing novel.  It also seemed to have been far more cleverly crafted than Revenge Wears Prada is.  I found the sequel a little too long, particularly when the second half was reached.  It wasn’t as engaging in terms of the storyline, and it almost felt a bit of a slog to get through.  When the first and second halves of the book are considered together, it is difficult to see that they are part of the same novel.  It is as though Weisberger has tacked together two rather different manuscripts, and it does not quite work.  It becomes a bit soulless, really, and to say that it is unlikely in terms of its plot and character development is an understatement.  It is rather predictable; one cannot help but feel that Weisberger penned the sequel just for the sake of doing so, rather than to add anything to Andy’s story.  Her male characters are far too gushing to be believed, and nothing new or surprising is brought to the table.  I feel that overall, I’m being rather generous with my three star rating, as it is really more of a two and a half star read.

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