Cuckoo song is the second novel I've read by Frances Hardinge, and she has definitely secured a spot on my "I will pay attention to anything with this name on it"-list. Her magic is deep and colourful and terrifying, her worlds vast and unknown but made comprehensible through vivid, earthy characters. There's more than a little taste of Diana Wynne Jones, which is a great thing. I find it in the way stories may seem to be about fantastic and unreal things, but sneakily turn out to be about identity, and family, and making choices about those things. To the adult reader's relief, being young while making these choices always feels like an optional trait.
So it is with Cuckoo song. You start reading it having already seen the broken doll's face on the cover, so you're not terribly surprised to find something scary right at the start. Triss Crescent has been in an accident, or so she's told, but she cannot remember it. Something... something is wrong.
I can't talk about the plot without really giving away a lot of the stuff that explains the eerie mood that gets you into this book. It unfolds and expands effortlessly, and you'll read fast to find out how things will end for Triss, her sister Pen, her parents' grief for her dead brother Sebastian, Sebastian's girlfriend Violet, and the rest of the cast.
The story is set in a post-first world war England where jazz is new and some women have started working, while at the same time people like the Crescents keep cooks and governesses and have a long list of places it would be entirely inappropriate for an person of good standing to be seen. This makes a lovely and textured backdrop, providing cues for the main plot, and the scents of tea houses and mothers' medicine cabinets, and piles of fabric in tailors' shops.
I would recommend Cuckoo song to everyone I know who loves Neil Gaiman, or the aforementioned Diana Wynne Jones, or even some Tim Burton films. People who have been Roald Dahl's Mathilda, or, for that matter, Harry Potter. Everyone with some degree of addiction to the sweet taste of a well-written choosing-identity middle grade story. (It's not entirely the same as the bildungsroman or coming-of-age, I think!)
I'm about to go put every other Frances Hardinge book that I haven't read yet on my wishlist. (I've seen reviews of The lie tree recently that caught my interest, so that's probably where I'll start!)
Oh, and should I avoid recommending this to anyone? Only adamant shunners of the relevent genres. I mean, I'm a grump with a pretty keen sense of when a middle-grade story just isn't big enough to cover more than the intended target age group, and I had no issues with this one.