bookish posts reading notes

Cuckoo Song Reading Notes

I’ve been a Frances Hardinge fan for quite some time now, and I thought I’d revisit one of her books. I loved Cuckoo Song when it first came out as a UK edition and had very fond memories of it, but hadn’t actually reread it since. This post is very full of spoilers, so please tread carefully if you haven’t read this one yet and are planning to!

This book opens with an absence, a complete absence of memory and identity. It’s an opening that basically goes against all the writing advice ever given, and just goes to show that all writing advice is relative. Anyway: the opening is fitting, because the story is haunted by the people who are missing. Sebastien, the real Triss, even Mrs. Crescent who is physically present but creates a kind of absence by her refusal to act. What’s here is defined by what’s gone. In this sense, Hardinge’s choice of setting, England in the early 1920s, is inspired. Everyone is defined by who they have lost, and there are ghosts woven throughout the story (although not real ghosts, in this particular book).

Into this, someone who believes she is Triss Crescent wakes up. But everything is wrong and she has to struggle to find out who Triss is, or was, and who she herself will become. One of the marvelous things about Hardinge’s writing here is how she shows the claustrophobia of Triss’s life. Her parents, acting out of both selfish and selfless reasons, keep her swaddled in cotton and Triss, acting out of her own selfish and selfless reasons, plays along. It’s a life that is afraid, that is circumscribed, that is almost sterile. Mr and Mrs Crescent have never learned to see their daughters beyond their own desires for them, their own conceptions of who they are. As Pen says, “They can’t tell when real Triss is fake-crying, so of course they can’t tell when Fake Triss is real-crying.”

So one of the questions that haunts the book becomes: who is your real family? Does Fake Triss, the changeling child, the one who Pen names Trista, have a family? Is it the Crescents? Is it the fairy who made her and sent her into the human world to eat? The book, marvelously, steps aside from the boundary of those two choices and offers another one: Pen and Violet, the real Triss’s sister and her dead brother’s fiance’. The two who have always been on the outside of that circumscribed family life because they are too angry, too rebellious, too fast.

There are almost no real villains in this book. Instead, Hardinge shows us the terrible side of love in the price that some of the characters are willing to extract to protect those they care for. Love that turns aside from who the person they care about really is; love that hurts or takes from others to protect its own; love that sees a danger to the object of its care around every corner. What sets Trista, Pen, and Violet aside from this darker side of affection is complicated, but I think it has to do with the fact that they aren’t fooling themselves. They see their own selfishnesses and own them where Mr. Crescent cannot see how his desire to protect his daughters is hurting them.

There are definitely some creepy moments in this story–the doll thing is…well…yes. IT SURE IS A THING. And there are some details of the fairy world that are pretty eerie. But what I’m left with at the end of the book is a sense of the power of truly caring for each other, the giddy rush of knowing that your life is up to you to live. “All was perhaps. Nothing was certain.” And that is lovely.

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Currently reading: 4-23


My current stack of books:

Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow by Cheryl Knott

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (reread)

Blood Road by Amanda McCrina

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley

Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi

I’ve been bouncing back and forth between books recently, but last night I sat down and read most of Cuckoo Song in one gulp, so it might be time for some more focused attention again.

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Recover Reading: non-mysteries

I didn’t only read mysteries while I was recovering, even though it might seem that way. Here’s a quick round-up of some of the other books I went through!

I had read In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan in its original incarnation, as a serial published on her blog. So when the book was announced, I was excited to revisit it, but also curious about how the story might change in a different form. As it turns out, the heart of Elliot, Luke, and Serene’s journey remains unchanged, but the book is significantly revised and expanded from the original. It remains one of my favorite recent takes on portal fantasies and just as hilarious and heart-rending/warming as I remembered.

Then I picked up The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis, which I didn’t enjoy as much as I had expected. I was looking for a Hornblower/Aubrey-esque airship escapade, and I do think that’s what it wanted to be. But for me it seemed a bit too grim and the characters never quite solidified. However, several people I generally trust thought it was great, so I do recommend checking it out if a female captain of an airship sounds like a hook you’d be into.

I’ve been reading through Helen Oyeyemi’s backlist and–going strictly off of what was available on Overdrive at that moment–picked up What is Not Yours is Not Yours. While I think I prefer the spooled-out surrealness of Oyeyemi’s novels, this was overall a pretty strong short story collection. I especially liked the way characters from one story would appear in another, lending a sense of cohesion and purpose to the book.

Since Frances Hardinge is one of my favorite authors, a new book by her is always an exciting time! Her latest, A Skinful of Shadows, is strange and sad and lovely–not surprising, from Hardinge. Though I found the historical aspect of the setting less potent than Cuckoo Song or The Lie Tree, I loved Makepeace and her bear, as well as the shape the story took. Surprising and hopeful and lovely.

I had tried reading Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway at least once before and hadn’t managed to finish it. This time I kept going and was mostly rewarded. I liked it quite a lot, except that the story seemed somewhat awkwardly caught between wanting to be a light teen romance and wanting to explore some deeper and harder relationships between parents and children. Ultimately I’m not entirely sure how I felt about it as a whole, but I don’t regret reading it.

Finally, I picked up Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake. I had mixed feelings about a couple of aspects of Hadley’s characterization, but overall I really liked the way Blake took a somewhat implausible plot and used it as a base to explore different kinds of relationships and growth. It wasn’t always an easy or comfortable read but I did appreciate it–a good one for teens looking for a story that’s a little challenging in terms of theme.


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Not the Chosen One

I’m always interested in tropes and the way authors play with them. At this point, the Chosen One trope has become both a huge cultural force and almost a parody of itself. Sometimes an author will choose to engage with it, but in a way that’s a little bit different. Maybe the story is narrated by someone close to the Chosen One, maybe the person who thought they were chosen isn’t. Because I don’t want to spoil the books below, I’m not saying exactly how they reflect this, but they do in some form. And I’d love to hear if you have a favorite I’ve missed!

White Cat by Holly Black
The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine
The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge
The Story of Owen/Prairie Fire by E.K. Johnston
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
UnLunDun by China Mieville
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon



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Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

Cuckoo-Song-Frances-HardingeFrances Hardinge is undoubtedly one of my favorite writers and has the page to prove it. Every time I read one of her books, I know it will be a wonderful experience. Part of that is the originality of the stories she writes–I have a hard time coming up with readalikes for her books because each of them is so unique.

So, when I heard that she had a new book coming out this year (UK only, I bought it through Book Depository), I was naturally very excited. I pre-ordered it sight unseen because, well, new Frances Hardinge!

I am happy to report that Cuckoo Song more than lived up to my expectations and is, in fact, at the top of my Favorite Frances Hardinge Books list, jostling Lost Conspiracy/Gullstruck Island for first. It’s a wonderful, eerie story, with a lot to say about identity and family. Fresh, unexpected, and wonderfully written, this is a book for both the die-hard fan and a good entrance for the new one.

This, like several of my other favorite books, is one that I struggle with describing, because part of its joy is the joy of discovery, finding out along with the characters what is happening. In this case, I will say that Cuckoo Song is the story of a young girl called Triss, who wakes up after an accident to find that everything is wrong. There are gaps in her memory, and her sister seems to hate her even more than usual. And she’s filled with a ravenous hunger that she cannot manage to stop, no matter how much she eats.

What follows starts off as a gloriously eerie, nightmarish story, as Triss struggles to make her memories match up, to find out what happened to her, and why strange things keep happening. Hardinge is really, really good at writing the just-barely-wrong details, the mirror world that doesn’t quite reflect true.

But things don’t end there. (I’m struggling to write this part without spoilers; even though I guessed the solution fairly early, I don’t want to ruin it for anyone else.) Instead of leaving us with a big revelation, Hardinge writes beyond that, turning the story into a beautiful examination of identity, of family and forgiveness, love and second-chances at life. The story is also set between the two World Wars, and there’s quite a bit about the memory of the Great War and the losses that people have suffered as a result; it haunts the story and underlies a number of choices made by the characters. And, as I’ve said before, I want more people to write like Hardinge does–great children’s books which are also aware of history, of politics and the implications of both. As in The Lost Conspiracy and the Mosca Mye books, Hardinge does not shy away from big questions, in this case about grief, loss, and the decisions people make.

Triss is a fantastic character, prickly and vulnerable, wrong and absolutely right. I loved the way Hardinge plays with the nuances of who she is, and who she chooses to be. Moreover, I loved the way her relationship with Pen develops, and the wonderful bittersweet hope of the ending.

I think this is the scariest of Hardinge’s books–the first quarter is one of those nightmare situations that when written well is incredibly terrifying–and yet, like The Lost Conspiracy, there are mostly not villains so much as people doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Against this is arrayed the strength of friendship, of sisterhood, of making a different choice than the ones you’re presented with. Ultimately I found it utterly compelling and beautifully written, and–as I’ve come to expect from Hardinge–a subtle, surprising look at the world and how we make ourselves in it.

Book source: bought through Book Depository (tragically not available in the US except as an ebook)
Book information: 2014, Pan Macmillan; upper middle grade/YA (Triss is eleven)
Favorite Author page for Frances Hardinge

Other Cuckoo Song reviews:
The Book Smugglers
Ana @ Things Mean A Lot