Cuckoo Song: Review

June 19, 2014 2014, 4.5 star books, creepy, fantasy, historical, horror, Kim, middle grade 64 ★★★★½

Cuckoo Song: ReviewCuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Published by Macmillan on May 8, 2014
Genres: fantasy, mystery, paranormal
Pages: 409
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased
The first things to shift were the doll's eyes, the beautiful grey-green glass eyes. Slowly they swivelled, until their gaze was resting on Triss's face. Then the tiny mouth moved, opened to speak.

"What are you doing here?" It was uttered in tones of outrage and surprise, and in a voice as cold and musical as the clinking of cups. 'Who do you think you are? This is my family."

When Triss wakes up after an accident, she knows that something is very wrong. She is insatiably hungry; her sister seems scared of her and her parents whisper behind closed doors. She looks through her diary to try to remember, but the pages have been ripped out. 

Soon Triss discovers that what happened to her is more strange and terrible than she could ever have imagined, and that she is quite literally not herself. In a quest find the truth she must travel into the terrifying Underbelly of the city to meet a twisted architect who has dark designs on her family - before it's too late...

Cuckoo Song is one of those books that I really struggled to find the words for. You know those books that have such an intense amount of complexity, beauty, and feeling? The kind of book that leaves you asking yourself, “How can I do this book justice?” Yes, this is one of those.

I was expecting this story to be a creepy, horror-tinged, fantastical mystery. And it is those things. But I was not expecting it to also be a story about the devastating effects of war on both societal and personal levels and of how a family torn apart by grief can come back together again. It’s also somehow lovely. So, so lovely in the midst of such horror..

Imagine you woke up one morning with all memories fractured, able only to grasp at mere pieces of who you are. You went missing from your home last night, found dripping at the edge of a lake. Yet you don’t remember a thing. And stranger things happen still. Eleven year old Triss has a rattling, insatiable hunger that won’t go away. A china doll comes to life before her very eyes. Instead of hair, twigs come away on her brush. A mysterious creature is leaving letters written by Triss’ dead brother locked away in his bedroom. There is a deep sense of dread and unease that settles in from page one and the intense need to relieve that creeping feeling compels the story.

But the dread is not just for Triss’ unfortunate circumstances. The grimness of an England trying to bring itself back from the devastation of the Great War, and right into the burgeoning escapism of the Jazz Age, is ever present. Triss is driven by answers to her own situation, but she is also struggling to reconcile the distance between herself and her parents who are still grieving a son lost in the war. She doesn’t know that the two are more intertwined than she could ever guess.

The less you know about the mystery at the heart of Triss’ condition the better.  But there is so much else going on in this book. There are themes of classism, women’s rights, the stigma of mental illness and the repercussions of vengeance. There is also a heady yet sobering dive right into the heart of the post-WWI youth scene, where jazz clubs and poverty abound. Violet, the woman who was her brother’s fiance, is the vehicle through which we explore many of the above mentioned themes. Triss’ relationship with her is wrought of heartache and pain, yet with a fierce and hard won loyalty. As for the mystery, though, do know that each piece is unlocked with another aching tug at your heart.

And this might come as a shock (because it’s me we’re talking about here) but there’s nothing like even the hint of one of those cutesy MG romances happening here. All of the relationships are focused on family and friendship. And the best of these is Triss’ relationship with her clever, thorny yet loveable sister, Pen. Pen alone seems to know that Triss is…not herself, and the story begins with the two as the staunchest of enemies. Watching them slowly come together as they unite their disparate goals is one of true pleasures of the book. This is a story about a love between sisters that is better than Frozen.

Gorgeously written, atmospheric, dark, and twisted; yet infused with shards of light and hope. A paranormal mystery that is ultimately about the reclamation of grief and the burning unconditional love of a family. For anyone who hesitates to read MG, I implore you to give this one a chance. It made my heart hurt in all the best ways. It is middle grade at its finest and one of my very favorite books of the past couple years.


divider vine cropped kim teal









64 Responses to “Cuckoo Song: Review”

  1. solarsister

    Oh wow, I love Frances Hardinge, and this book sounds like it has everything I love – creepiness, mystery, fantastic elements, historical fiction set during a fascinating period, family, and discussion of important social issues. Adding to my ever-lengthening to-read list on Goodreads immediately!

  2. Michelle R

    This cover is creepy! I’m not a horror fan, but I think my students are going to love this covercover, which will get then reading the book. Great review!

  3. Taylor Atkinson

    Honestly, I cannot do creepy/scary books. I have had nightmares from much less haha. But I think your review sold me. I love books about the bonds of siblings – things that seem to be missed in a lot of YA literature I feel. Adding this to my to-read pile! Great review :)

  4. starryeyedjen

    Wow, this cover doesn’t scream MG to me at all, but that’s probably a good thing because now I’m even more interested in reading it. A sister bond that’s BETTER than Frozen? And utter creepiness to boot? I’m sold. I haven’t heard of this one before, but I’ll definitely be adding it to my TBR…sounds like it would definitely make for a good read near Halloween. :)
    starryeyedjen recently posted…Review: Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

    • Kim

      This one really seems to have flown under the radar! I’m so happy to try and call some attention to it because it’s so amazing. Before this year I hadn’t read any MG since I was actually in the target age range. But so many of my favorite reads this year have been MG. I can’t even fathom what else I must’ve been missing out on! Please do read this one, Pili! I think you will love it!!!
      Kim recently posted…Classic MG Discussion: The Westing Game

  5. Ranee

    Your review has me entirely intrigued. Like others, I also cannot believe that this is a middle grade book from the description. This is definitely on my reads list for July!
    Ranee recently posted…Review of Thirty Sunsets

    • Kim

      Yayyy! I’m so glad this is on your TBR and so soon! It looks like the author is known for her beautifully written and complexly themed MG but I have yet to read her others. Can’t wait, though! And can’t wait for you to read this one!
      Kim recently posted…Classic MG Discussion: The Westing Game

    • Kim

      Creepy it certainly is! Though it’s also immensely emotionally rewarding. More that than it is creepy. I’d say read it when you’re in the mood for a book that will take you through a whole gamut of experiences: creeped out, horrified, saddened beyond belief, and uplifted beyond hope.
      Kim recently posted…Classic MG Discussion: The Westing Game

  6. Ariel T

    This doesn’t seem like a book I would usually read, but it has me intrigued! It sounds really good yet creepy. I’m surprised to hear that it’s a Middle Grade novel though! I’ll definitely be adding this one to my to be read list. Thanks for the review!

    • Kim

      It *really* wasn’t the type of book I would normally read but I am so, so glad that I did. It’s creepy and fantastical and just plain wonderful. And it’s one of the most emotionally satisfying MG I’ve ever read. I am so, so glad to hear you’re adding it to your TBR! You won’t regret it!
      Kim recently posted…Classic MG Discussion: The Westing Game

  7. Charity Casas

    The cover is completely creepy! I’m trying to talk myself into it!

    • Kim

      It’s really not horror in the traditional sense. It’s more creepy than anything. And most of the horror was, I thought, in dealing with the repercussions of a devastating war upon this family. It is super emotionally redeeming. Much more that than it is horror. Give it a try!
      Kim recently posted…Murder is Bad Manners: exclusive cover reveal + giveaway

  8. Sarah C.

    I am intrigued. The description reminds me of Imaginary Girls (which I loved) and the British drama Foyle’s War, but paranormal. This sounds very interesting and creepy and all-around marvelous and I have added it to my to-read list! Thank you for the marvelous review!

    • Kim

      It is a super intriguing book! I haven’t heard of IMAGINARY GIRLS but it is on my list now for sure. I see that our Wendy also loved it. I agree, from the description, it looks like there are a lot of similarities. It is wondrously and fantastically creepy. I hope you give it a go!
      Kim recently posted…Murder is Bad Manners: exclusive cover reveal + giveaway

  9. Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews

    The Cuckoo Song sounds awesome, Kim! I love books that make me feel like words fail me when I have to write my review. That means they really touched me in every way. I also love creepy stories, where things aren’t what they seem, and also where I cannot necessarily see in advance where the story might be going.
    Great review! Adding to my TBR :)
    Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews recently posted…Review: Ransom – Rachel Schurig

    • Kim

      I know-it was so hard to write this review! It’s such a gorgeous book I felt like I really couldn’t do it justice. This story was so creepy and hard for me to predict. I usually don’t do mystery type books but this one drew me right in. I had no idea where Triss’ story was going. And fair warning, the mystery itself is resolved by about halfway in whereupon it becomes more of an adventure/rescue story. I found it just as intriguing and exciting throughout, though.
      Kim recently posted…Murder is Bad Manners: exclusive cover reveal + giveaway

  10. A Canadian Girl

    This one sounds so creepy and mysterious, Kim, and I’ve heard good things about Hardinge’s novels. I loved Frozen, especially because of its emphasis on the relationship between Anna and Elsa, so I expect the sibling relationship in this one to be amazing.
    A Canadian Girl recently posted…Review: Free to Fall by Lauren Miller

    • Kim

      Creepy and mysterious is right! But also lovely and full of heart and hope. I really enjoyed watching how the relationship between Triss and Pen changes from prickly animosity to reluctant companions to best friends. It’s just wonderful.

    • Kim

      Haha it seems the void granted the comment back to us. It showed up just fine. :)

    • Kim

      Oh it really is both of those things! This is recommended reading, I think, for anyone looking for a sister story. Even though there’s the paranormal angle, the core of it is sisterly love.

    • Kim

      Yeah the cover is freaky. And the book is freaky too. But freaky in the best way. It’s such a fantastic mix of eerie surreality and hopeful tale of family love. I hope you’ll give it a try!

    • Kim

      Hee I am soooo happy to hear my review has gotten you intrigued! It really is an emotional read. A scary, freaky, creepy emotional read. With an overall hopeful message. It’s such a special book. I hope you give it a try!

  11. Jessica @ Rabid Reads

    GAH. I already had this book on my wishlist, but now I might have to suck it up, and one-click it already. I’m the oldest of four sisters, so I am a HUGE sucker for books with sister relationships, and I sat in Frozen, bawling my eyes out, b/c YES, I did want to build a snowman! And this is better? I’m tempted to say, “Inconceivable,” but that never went well for anyone. Great review, Kim! I’m becoming convinced that we’re book-mates ;)
    Jessica @ Rabid Reads recently posted…Question – Immediate Re-Reads. Have You Ever Been Compelled To Do This?

    • Kim

      Do itttttt. I will happily be the little devil on your shoulder telling you to hit that one-click! It’s just so easy, you know. >:) Ohh gosh you are going to love this!! Not only are the sisters saving each other but also their family as a whole-even their lost brother’s fiance. Also a sister. :'( It’s all very sad but really lovely. Heartbreaking but in that good way. And I think we are book-mates, Jessica!! For sure! :D

    • Kim

      Please do read it! It’s an incredible story and is really just beautifully told. It’s creepy and yet lovely and full of hope. What more could you want?

  12. Carina Olsen

    Now hold it. Not even a hint of cute MG romance? :( SAD FACE. I love those in MG books.. Ack. But omg. You make this book sounds amazing. And I have been wanting to read it. And I still do. It sounds so good :D And heartbreaking o.O Yet also beautiful. Ack. I must buy it soonish. <3 Thank you for sharing your awesome review :)
    Carina Olsen recently posted…Cover Reveal: Island of Shipwrecks by Lisa McMann

    • Kim

      Nope. Not even a hint. But it’s okay, honestly. It would be *so* out of place in this book. And it really is both heartbreaking and beautiful. And also more! Creepy and paranormal. Atmospheric and strange. Loving and undyingly devoted. It’s all those things and more. Read it!!

    • Kim

      Ohhh yay! I’m so glad you’ve heard even anything about this book to begin with let alone good things! That warms my heart. I’m really eager to read her other books myself. Before this year I hadn’t read any MG other than what I read when I actually was the targeted age for it. Kicking myself now because I’ve been reading some really great stuff. I think MG tends to be underestimated, imo. I will gladly serve as MG ambassador, though!

  13. Megan (Adrift on Vulcan)

    I can’t believe I passed this up WITHOUT even reading the blurb — I took one look at the title and cover and thought it would be some mystery/thriller adult book, not a middle-grade/YA horror. *headdesk* Your review is so beautiful, Kim. I love the way you described everything, and I love that this wasn’t mindless horror either (while I don’t mind that, I prefer horror with depth more). I think it’s particularly amazing how the author was able to make you feel both dread and horror from page one. That’s one talented writer!

    Triss’ problems sound so freaky — love it. And one of the best parts is that you don’t ever forget when this book is set in because it is so rich in its “world building” as well (can it be called world building if it’s set in the same world as ours?).

    Ugh, hating myself so much right now for not requesting it on NetGalley when I could. Maybe it’s still up there, but I doubt it! Either way, this is one book I’m definitely going to check out. I’m not always big on MG (I have yet to read one that impresses me), but I’ll take your advice and give this one a go. It sounds amazing.

    Fantastic review, Kim!
    Megan (Adrift on Vulcan) recently posted…For Once, the Romance Wasn’t Bad: These Broken Stars, Meagan Spooner & Amie Kaufman

    • Kim

      Ugh, I know. I do fret about how many great books are out there that I just completely skimmed over the description. The number is untold, I fear. And this is an MG horror-but it’s so much more. I thought the horror was much more of a “real world” rather than paranormal horror. I mean, it is both, but the real world horror aspect drew me in more. The writer is really, really gifted. I felt that sense of unease from practically the first sentence. There is something intrinsically unsettling about not being able to remember your own self. The little glimpses Triss gets into her memory only serve to make it more frustrating. Why isn’t it *all* there, you know?

      I love the problem you touch on. Is it world building when it takes place in a time other than our own? I think so, yes. The time and setting of this book are tied to the larger themes it’s addressing. The horrors of war, and how it affects those far beyond the battlefield, is one of my favorite topics to explore in fiction. This was always goingto be a special book to me. But the writing, the characterization, the mood, and the atmosphere really made this one something else.

      Please do check it out! If there’s one MG that could impress anyone this is the one I would recommend. let me know what you think if you end up reading it if you can remember to check back in. I am so curious to how other’s will find it!
      Kim recently posted…Cuckoo Song: Review

    • Kim

      It is just the perfect amount of creepiness and intense, real world heartache. I am so, so glad that I’ve sparked some curiosity for this book! It is so complex, sad, and lovely. I just want everyone to read it. Please do let me know what you think if you end up reading it. :)

    • Kim

      Oh I’ve never seen that show so I don’t know how it compares exactly but it sure does strike an appropriately creepy tone, I think. This is a deeply unsettling story (at least in the beginning). Ha, and yes. I really wanted to emphasize how strong and good this sisterly storyline is. It’s awesome!

  14. Keertana @ Ivy Book Bindings

    I happen to think there are MANY sister relationships done better than in Frozen, but I’m one of those minority individuals who didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with it. *shrug* Still, I’m so glad you loved this, Kim! I’ve read two of Hardinge’s Middle Grade and been utterly blown away by them, so I’m not surprised by your reaction in the least. I have to get my hands on this ASAP, especially knowing it covers themes such as feminism and women’s rights–woot! ;) Lovely review, dear!(:
    Keertana @ Ivy Book Bindings recently posted…Two Year Blogoversary Giveaways! :D

    • Kim

      Oh I agree with you! Personally I enjoyed the Frozen soundtrack more than I enjoyed the actual movie. I mean the movie was cute. Just not the be all end all, you know? If you’re already a fan of Hardinge’s other books I can’t imagine you would do anything but LOVE this one. I haven’t read her others but this book left me realllly wanting to do so. And yes! It covers such amazing themes and in such a subtle and well done way. It never ever feels preachy or overreaching. It’s all just really perfectly executed. Pleeeeaase read it asap! :)

  15. Wendy Darling

    Such a gorgeous, gorgeous review, Kim. You already told me I would love this, and after reading your review, I know you’re right! Things coming to life, creepy atmospheric mystery are all enjoyable, but to find that combined with this:

    There are themes of classism, women’s rights, the stigma of mental illness and the repercussions of vengeance.

    Which I LOVE seeing explored in literature, is amazing. And I cannot believe this is a middle grade book.

    I should have requested this from Pan Macmillan because I want to read it, but now I’m glad I didn’t–because your review is utterly perfect.

    • Kim

      Oh, Wendy. You know I practically can’t stand it when you pay me such high compliments! I really can’t wait for you to read this! The entire time I was reading I kept thinking of you and how much you would like it. It has that early 20th century English setting, the creepiness, the mature themes…and just this constant, insistent heartbreak. It’s so strange to ask for or look forward to heartache but we readers are an odd breed like that. You simply MUST let me know when you’ve read this one. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

    • Kim

      Don’t let the cover deceive! This one is the right balance of creepy, serious, light, and wonderful. Yes, all of those in one book!

  16. Nikki

    So totally sold. This sounds like the perfect blend of dark and soulful entertainment.

    • Kim

      Yes! Yes yes yes! I’m so glad you’re sold! You are spot on in your assessment. It’s a heavy book, addressing complex themes. And yet it’s full of love and warmth and discovery. What a special book.

  17. kindlemom1

    That cover is so creepy I love it!

    I love that even though this was a horror story of sorts it still held a lot of good messages and another storyline as well about families. I wasn’t considering reading this one before but I definitely want to now.
    kindlemom1 recently posted…Review: Nearly Gone by Elle Cosimano

    • Kim

      It is a super creepy cover, isn’t it? It gives off just the right amount of “something is not right here” vibe.

      And it’s so strange because this is a horror story in the traditional sense but it’s also a horror story in the real world sense. There is a family dealing with the loss of their young son to a senseless war. That’s true horror, honestly. And I really loved how both of these senses of horror played off of each other in the book. Please do read it. It’s truly a special book.

  18. Giselle

    Oh wow I was intrigued by this book but you make it sounds incredible and so up my alley you have no idea! I love memory loss books but been having no luck with the last few I read. This one sounds like it’s really something else though with a lot of depth, important topics, and anything that gives out a dread/creepy feeling will have my attention fully! Definitely not just fluff!! I also didn’t know this was an MG. I like MGs though so that’s not a bad thing for me at all. Lack of romance is also refreshing to be honest! Too many could-have-been great plots get pushed aside to focus on romance. Great review, Kim! I’ll def have to give this one a try!
    Giselle recently posted…Review: Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater

    • Kim

      Oh yay!! If you like memory loss books this one will definitely be a treat. So much of the “fun” of this novel is Triss’ delicate exploration into her memories and the “hows” and “whys” of what she can remember and what she can’t. There’s definitely a paranormal explanation going on here but at the same time it’s still intrinsically human. And there is so much depth. Really, you just have to read it! It’s full of dread but the hope just desperately wants to break through sometimes. You can feel it. And I completely agree with you on the romance here. Any semblance of a romantic plot would have felt plain wrong in this book. This is a book about deep, familial love at its heart. It just doesn’t need the distraction of a romantic pairing. Please do give it a try! It’s one of those books that I just can’t imagine anyone who would feel drawn to it would not end up loving it.

  19. Tiffany / Bookplates for Brunch

    Cuckoo Song sounds fantastic. I love reading about how families interact. Seems like the YA (and surrounding) world is filled with stories about romantic relationships, but I actually find family/community dynamics to be far more interesting.

    It’s also great to see a self-aware middle grade book – the world tends to underestimate what younger people can process and understand… so I’m happy to see that the author didn’t shy away from more “serious” issues.

    If you ever get a chance, you might like Clay Carmichael’s Wild Things – one of my personal favorites. It’s also a middle grade book that explores family/community relationships and trust.
    Tiffany / Bookplates for Brunch recently posted…A Brief Intermission: The Sky is Everywhere

    • Kim

      You’re right. YA books are by and large filled with romantic relationships. MG usually has a bit more family interaction due to the younger ages of the characters but its usually not the focus even there. I’m the sort who *always* wants ALL of the romance. But if you love family dynamics this book is 100% absolutely for you.

      And yes! I really loved how smartly and how non-condescending this book was in its handling of children and how much they truly understand. It was super refreshing and wouldn’t have been as good of a book without it. I’m really quite amazed that this book is MG. The themes are so mature but handled so very well.

      And thank you for the rec! I’ve not heard of WILD THINGS before. So I just went to the GoodReads description and I see:

      “A headstrong girl. A stray cat. A wild boy. A man who plays with fire. ”

      Sold and sold! Thanks, Tiffany!

  20. Becky LeJeune

    This book sounds kind of amazing! I love the combo of what sounds like a more atmospheric horror (the creepiness and the dread) and the post WWII setting. I’ll need to keep my eye out for this one for sure.

    • Kim

      Oh, it’s not kind of amazing, Becky. It’s legit amazing. It was so atmospheric and there was quite a fairy tale-like feel even. I loved that it had not only a paranormal type of horror but also the real world horror of dealing with the personal and societal after effects of a super devastating war. Do give it a try. It really is a wonderful book.

    • Kim

      I know, Mary. I was so impressed. This book is like the opposite of cute MG (not to denigrate cute MG in any way; I love cute MG!). It’s just as thematically complex as THE GOLDEN COMPASS and that is a comparison I do not make lightly. I think it’s such a beautiful and under-the-radar gem.