Book Review: The Lie Tree, A Spellbinding Read

You know those books that you can’t stop reading? You get so immersed in them that you read them for hours at a time, like you were watching a movie, and when you’re done, you feel…a little empty. Not only do I enjoy those kinds of books, but I take copious notes as to exactly how they achieve it. It’s one thing to feel it, it’s another to understand why.  The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge was one such book for me, but honestly, I’m still not sure if I fully understand why it moved me so much. Let me tell you about it, and see what you think.

What Is The Lie Tree About?

Here’s the description from the back cover:

Faith Sunderly leads a double life. To most people, she is modest and well mannered–a proper young lady who knows her place. But inside, Faith is burning with questions and curiosity. She keeps sharp watch of her surroundings and, therefore, knows secrets no one suspects her of knowing–like the real reason her family fled Kent to the close-knit island of Vane. And that her father’s death was no accident.

In pursuit of revenge and justice for the father she idolizes, Faith hunts through his possessions, where she discovers a strange tree. A tree that bears fruit only when she whispers a lie to it. The fruit, in turn, delivers a hidden truth. The tree might hold the key to her father’s murder. Or, it might lure the murderer directly to Faith herself, for lies–like fires, wild and crackling–quickly take on a life of their own.

Faith, in her pursuit of an outlet for her cleverness and answers to the questions posed by her father’s murder, nurtures the tree and ingests the fruit, but the things she discovers aren’t the things she thought she would.

What Makes It Great?

So picture a brambly English moor, like the one in Wuthering Heights, and a turbulent coast that hides lots of caves, like the kind in Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper (another great book I need to review here), or Willowkeep by Julie Daines. It’s moody and creepily magic. So a mystical setting is one thing that sets this books apart, but it’s not all.

And the prose is strong, as in this paragraph:

She was very aware of herself, of her own lungs filling and emptying. She could feel where the china saucer dented her fingers, and the shapes of her teeth against her dry tongue. Something warm was spilling from her eyes down her cheeks. Suddenly she was hotly, unbearably alive.

The whole book is like that, a great example to me as a writer of “showing” and not “telling.” But it’s more than the setting and the prose.

Its underlying theme of seeking respect, particularly women seeking respect from men who aren’t willing to give it, is one that was artfully woven into the plot and is relevant today. It’s Faith unwittingly seeking an answer, through the process of trying to solve her father’s murder, to the question of whether one should seek to demand respect from those who withhold it, or not worry about what anyone else thinks, even if that limits your circumstances. I think that’s a question all of us have sought the answer to at one time or another. So, it’s the setting and the prose and the theme.

But that’s still not sufficient. What makes The Lie Tree extraordinary is something that I’m not sure can be adequately articulated by anyone, and that is how it makes one feel. The reader wants Faith to get the notice she desires from her father before he dies, to have people recognize her intellect and help her nurture it, and to solve the mystery surrounding her father’s death. She’s a good, well-drawn robust character.

So, Who Would Like The Lie Tree, And Why?

There’s no romance, so if you like romance in your books, don’t read this. If you like mysteries like Shatter, you’ll like this. If you liked any book in the Harry Potter series, you’ll like The Lie Tree. It’s also a little like Colorless by Rita Stradling. It’s just a really good book!

 

Book Review: Dangerous Dreams by Mike Rhynard: a Difficult Read

I’ve said before that I really wish that books came with “nutrition facts” labels that gave accurate, somewhat numerical indications of their contents in terms of incidences involving violence, sex, profanity, etc. This would be far easier than any kind of ranking system, and remove any possibility for bias or accusations thereof. It would enable consumers to be more informed about what they take into their minds, which I think is at least as important than what they take into their bodies. Such labels, I think, would also enable authors and publishers to more appropriately market their books.

I got a free copy of Dangerous Dreams: A Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke through NetGalley, where I was provided with the book’s genre (adult historical fiction) and a description, but not much more. I’m not generally the best reviewer of historical fiction, although I do occasionally enjoy books in that genre, but this book’s description indicated that it involved really interesting dreams. That piqued my curiousity, in part because the book I recently wrote also involves similar kinds of dreams. But I should’ve known that it would have been a more difficult read than my usual fare because of its adult genre, but went into it somewhat blindly given its lack of my desired label. So I have to qualify my rating of this book with this caveat: for its genre, it’s a really good read. But I didn’t enjoy it.

Why Dangerous Dreams is a Good Read

What I mean by that is that, as an adult historical fiction, it’s a fascinating fictional “filling out” of the real mystery surrounding the second group of European settlers to try and establish a colony on American shores in the late 1500s. It follows 117 colonists who landed on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what would become North Carolina. For a variety of reasons, their circumstances, which were tenuous to begin with, rapidly deteriorated. Their governor sailed back to England for additional supplies and colonists, but his return was delayed until 1590, when he discovered the colony had vanished. The book’s plot development–slow, complex, and based on the turning emotions and actions of various characters–is spot on for the type of book that it is. I would say it’s an R-rated version of Dances With Wolves, with a significant added plot facet being that everything that happens to the colonists is seen in vivid dreams by a girl 400 years later who embarks on a quest to understand them.

The fact that that girl’s experience reflects a similar, real-life experience of the author’s is also pretty interesting. He says, in the preface:

On several occasions in my adult life, I have experienced dreams so real…that I awoke believing I had actually participated in a true American historical event: the battle of the Alamo. I spoke [with the other Alamo defenders], laughed with them, feared with them, and ultimately died with them.

Why I Didn’t Like It

So why didn’t I enjoy it, and what does that have to do with my desire to have seen a nutrition-facts label on the book before I read it? Because it has a fair amount of brutality and murder, references to rape, actual rape, and some profanity. While perhaps true to life, it was not true to my moral code or my usual reasons for reading. One of those reasons is to acquaint myself with the better realities and possibilities of the human race.

By my ten-star rating system, which measures books on their artistic and technical merit and doesn’t take into account my personal tastes, I’d have to give Dangerous Dreams a 7. Its premise was great (2 stars), its plot and pacing were genre-appropriate but a bit slow (3 stars), its characterization was solid (2 stars), but its style, which was generally elegant, was occasionally disturbed by stiff dialogue. If I were to factor in my personal tastes, though, I would rate it closer to a 3 or 4.

Would I recommend this book to others? Yes, if this kind of book is your cup of tea. No, if not.

 

Book Review: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson, Fascinating and Charming

A while ago, I researched for a book I wrote about a girl with exceptionally vivid dreams. I asked for some recommendations from my Facebook book club friends for non-fantasy books about dreams, and they said I should read The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson. I read it, and, while it wasn’t like my book at all, it was a highly enjoyable read. It’s very well executed, has a relaxed style, a charming setting, and a provocative final truth.

What is The Bookseller About?

Kitty Miller owns a bookstore with her best friend, Frieda, in early 1960’s Denver, Colorado. They’re both single and childless, content with their imperfect but uncomplicated lives. Then Kitty starts having vivid recurring dreams of another life altogether, in which she’s married to a wonderful man, has beautiful children, and a perfect house. At first, she enjoys these nighttime excursions. But, as they become more frequent and vivid, she starts to wonder what’s real and what’s not. She investigates the things she dreamed about when she wakes up, as the man she’s married to actually existed.

The author, Cynthia Swanson, masterfully weaves the details of what life was like then and in that location into Kitty’s tale, into her reactions to “current” events like the Cuban missile crisis, into her fashion sense, and into her investigations of both her dream and real worlds. If I had to describe the setting in one word, I would call it “charming.” Kitty, or Katharyn as she is called in her dream world, becomes keenly aware of the attributes of both worlds, desirous as she becomes to figure out which one is real.

Similar to the 1998 movie Sliding DoorsBookseller’s plot advances on parallel examinations of those worlds. It’s fascinating, really, how  Swanson’s style reflects Kitty’s uncomplicated, earnest, perceptive personality, but yet reveals someone who has very real reactions to deep, deep hurts, which form the book’s final truths.

So, on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the best, I rate this a 9, maybe even a 9.5. The only thing that keeps me from giving it a full 10 is that sometimes the descriptions of things and people tended to get a little bit long.

Who Would Like The Bookseller, and Why?

Anyone who likes:

  • good writing
  • contemporary fiction
  • historical fiction
  • books about dreams

will like The Bookseller.

What’s the Deal?

You can get a used copy from BetterWorldBooks for $3.98, with free shipping!

Favorite Quote?

Update on an Update

I picked up The Bookseller because it was about dreams, like one of the books I wrote. Stranger in my Own Head is about a girl whose dreams come at the cost of her memories, and the fact that those dreams might be the only things that can keep her safe. The two books ended up being nothing alike, but Bookseller was still a worthwhile read. I’ve since revised my S.i.m.o.h. manuscript eight times, queried it umpteen million times, gotten a few requests for fulls but, ultimately, no takers, and am currently having one of my critique groups go through it chapter by chapter to see what needs to be done to make it better. Then I’ll head into my ninth draft. Many would say I’m crazy for aiming to be traditionally published, when it’s so hard, but I am amazed at how much better the story’s getting as it gets reviewed, revised, and rewritten.