REVIEW: The Eagle Tree

The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes

The Eagle Tree is a heartening novel by Ned Hayes about opening your eyes more fully to the world around you. Peter March Wong is a teenager on the autistic spectrum with a deep passion for trees. He learns about a local ‘old growth’ tree, nicknamed “The Eagle Tree” and plans to climb the behemoth. As he gets closer to the tree and his goal, he learns this magnificent tree and its surrounds will be felled for housing. This is March’s story of trying to climb to the highest tree and reach new heights in many areas of his life.

Told from March’s perspective throughout, Ned Hayes does an amazing job of capturing the cadence of March’s distinct voice, obsessively observing the trees around him. What struck me was this author has really understood the depths to which these special interests, though often learnt by rote, preoccuopy the thoughts of the person. Though it may seem like a bundle of facts, as we see throughout this novel, a person’s passion can lead to deep connections. I loved this about this novel. We talk about repetitive behaviour and special interests often as if they are a problem to be solved, whereas they can be really be celebrated.

In this novel March’s obsessions allow him to make new relationships, and as he meets others who are interested too in saving the environment, we start to see how the world opens up for him. But also that he widens the world for others, both his vicar and therapist have moments where they show how much they have learnt from him. This positive note is so heartening, as a mother of a child on the autistic spectrum I do appreciate the hopeful message of the novel. It’s impossible not to think too of Greta Thurnberg when I read this novel and her amazing work. A young woman also on the spectrum, she has used her passion to ignite the world on these pressing environmental issues. Both this fictional character and real life person achieve so much because of their neurodiversity, rather than inspite of it which is more often the story told.

Although I really felt that this novel reaches to represent living on the autism spectrum well, there are moments of incredible sadness in the novel. Perhaps because we learn of them in drips of information via March, it is upsetting to see in some areas of his life, he is not helped to understand why his actions are dangerous or could harm him. In the final chapter, in particular, I was at once incredulous and frustrated by the jeopardy in the novel.

Overall I really feel this is a positive novel which will uplift and inform people. I am passionate about trees too and learnt so much from March that I can forgive some of the sensationalism near the end. I think this was the perfect book to end the year on. It is hopeful about human endeavour and speaks to the climate emergency which should preoccupy us all.

If you like this, I also recommend another book about a neurodiverse character Elvira Carr The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard

REVIEW: Wakenhyrst

I have written of my love of gothic fiction before and Michelle Paver’s recent bestseller is a new favourite

Wakenhyrst is a gothic mansion hidden in the fenlands of Suffolk near where I recently spent a week away so I was very happy to make this one of my first autumn reads. Suffolk is an area full of myth, it’s the perfect spot for this tale of horror, both imagined and real. As the blurb describes, the house is surrounded by” a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father. When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.” The old manor house, this one being encroached on by the smell and damp of the fen, is full of great cast of characters whose lives are unravelled by the discovery of the painting.

I was a bit confused at first whether this novel was going to lurch back and forth between the 1960s journalist writing about Wakenhyrst and the fin-de-siecle setting but we find this is in fact just the framing for Maud’s story. She becomes our protagonist and we grow with her as she matures and manages to understand more about her father, Edmund Stearne, the villain of the piece.

Stearne is haunted by his discovery of a painting and also by his scholarship into Alice Pyett, a fictionalised version of Margery Kemp. In his pursuit to understand Alice’s visions, as well as her apparent madness, his own mental health seems to deteriorate. The gap between what both he and Maud believe is happening and their differing beliefs about both religion and folklore all make for a compelling mystery. You find yourself racing through to find out the truth. I can imagine I will need to read it again to capture all the detail.

I enjoyed the level of detail that went into many aspects of their lives: the artwork, local customs, the landscape and the food they eat. All of these make it feel like you are in knowledgeable hands and that the writer is enveloping you in this world she has found.

The characters in the novel, particularly through Maud’s eyes are often comical and I enjoyed meeting the repugnant doctor and lascivious Ivy. The psychological nature of this novel really appealled to me and though many of the characters are often villianous, it also feels they are grounded in truth.

I wasn’t completely sure why we needed to follow the story of Maud into later life. Many parts of the mystery unfolding were exciting enough and I expected the novel to end before it did. I did really enjoy the novel but it was the historical part of the fiction that was the best for me.

I would definitely recommend this novel for fans of gothic fiction and folklore.

If you like this, you will also like:

The strong and sassy female lead in The Mermaid and the Bear. Set amongst the witchcraft hysteria in 17th century Scotland, this is also full of fascinating details of the time and great historical fiction. My review is here

In The Night Wood by Dale Bailey the main character is an academic studying an old manuscript of fairy stories that comes to haunt him. This time the manor house is set in great woods, but just like the fen in Wakenhyrst, they it starts to encroach on the tumbledown manor.

REVIEW: Among the Trees

Hayward Gallery, London

What a strange and perfect first foray into London after six months, an exhibition about trees at the Southbank Centre. In truth I chose an event at the Southbank because it is just one train to get there for me, reducing the time out in a mask. Like testing the water, a place I know so not too far out of my comfort zone. I have written before about my anxieties in the City which always go hand-in-hand with the child-like buzz of excitement I get to be there.

So in town again, amongst not too many people, I am also at an exhibition designed for me, it seems, called Among the Trees. It is a collection of artwork from the last fifty years that captures trees and importantly human’s interactions with them. A time span chosen to reflect the modern environmentalist movement. With this in mind, the centre piece upstairs at the exhibition is a tree of life-size proportions with a leaves of colourful plastic bags. A little on the nose, it is a bright moment in quite a dark exhibition.

My favourite piece another large installation is Forêt Palatine – a cardboard forest. What is great that climbing the stairs I got a view of the whole exhibition space, everyone mercifully spread out, and a glimpse of the forest. The detail on it, made you want to touch but you can’t. A tale for now, indeed.

I loved the Rachel Sussman photographs too, she has travelled the world for a decade finding the oldest things on the planet, like the underground forest in South Africa that has been in the ground for 13,000 years. Nothing like living through a pandemic for an existential crisis. But isn’t this the perfect place to be. The two video installations of trees begging us to just stop and stare. They anchor us and challenge our ideas about longevity.

The final gallery speaks more to human interaction with trees, photos of New York trees with metal fencing growing through them and a British painter, George Shaw displaying rubbish around an old tree. These artworks, rather than venerate the old trees, remark on how we encroach on natural life. These and Sussmann’s work in stark contrast where an ancient tree is in a open landscape, a pillar of ancient in a sparse world.

I think this was a great way back to the museum. The exhibition has a simple message but one that speaks to us if we just take a moment to reflect on the way we have been forced to slow down. Where was the one place we spent our daily exercise during lockdown, why local woods of course. And I’m always happiest among the trees.

Has anyone else braved museums in these new-normal times?

Podcast to Keep Your Cheerful

Last month I wrote about some of the best storytelling podcasts around. But really what I have needed are things that have kept me cheerful and accompanied me on my essential exercise in the last ten weeks. When it comes down to it, anything that has buoyed you up has to be a good thing in tough times.

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Pexels.com

Top 5 Cheering Podcasts


1. Happier Podcast

I love Gretchen Ruben’s books and she and her sister Elizabeth remind me of me and mine – they chat about ways you might improve your life and address real world problems. There’s always something to raise your spirits and make you think.

2. By the Book

This podcast is two funny ladies, Kristen and Jolenta, reading self-help books each week and trying to live by their rules. Some go deeper but if you want lighter episodes I like The Curated Closet, The Magic of Tidying Up. Recently they read older self help books which seems like a sociological study of bygone eras. They’re never afraid to call out the authors if their story lacks diversity or from a place of privilege. They’ve introduced me to so many great self-help authors and shown me many to avoid.

3. Phoebe Reads a Mystery

Phoebe Judge is the creator of Criminal, my favourite true crime podcast but all through the pandemic she’s read a different mystery story like Agatha Christie. She’s really kept me going with. I wrote before about the benefits of Murder Mysteries and why they can soothe us. It seems to have worked.

4. Every Little Thing

I love trivia shows like There’s no Such thing as a Fish but I love Flora’s style. She solves a different mystery each week about stuff you didn’t know you needed to know – like the history of forks and nail polish names..!

5. Disorganised Crime

This seems an odd choice but a story about hippy drug smuggling in the California was somehow uplifting, I think the great music helps and the fact her parents (the smugglers!) come across as kind of adorable.

I’d love to hear any podcasts that have kept you going?

A new reading list

I haven’t posted here for a while but I have been reading, trying to educate myself

I am so saddened by George Floyd’s murder. And Breonna Taylor’s. And so many more. I have been learning too so much more about the problems faced in the UK.

I have watched the news, listened to many people talking about these deep-rooted issues and seen some remarkable activism as part of a larger conversation. I haven’t felt safe enough to protest. so I have tried to think of other ways to engage. I have really taken the chance to think about what the Black Lives Matter conversation means in the UK.

Being me, this has meant reading of course. These are all books that have soared up the Amazon charts. I am clearly not the only one trying to support more black authors. By adding these powerful voices to my life I hope to understand and learn more.

Read this month

Queenie by Candice Carty – Williams

This book had been on my list for a while. It discusses in a joyful way really what it is to date in the modern world. But particularly for Queenie, a woman of Carribean descent, the way her body and black life is understood by others and herself. She is a witty and fascinating character and you really root for her as she tries to navigate the pitfalls in her life. But underlying all the problem she comes across in work and dating life is a darker and political edge that has an important message. Ultimately an uplifting book with a powerful message.

Why I stopped talking to white people about Race by Reno Eddo-Lodge

An essential guide in the move towards becoming Anti-Racist. I have learnt so much more about others experience over this last month and this well written report on where we are has helped. It feels important. It includes a sweep of history that is oft ignored and shared insights into the systematic inqualities of now. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but this feels like a necessary part of the conversation.

Reading now

Girl, woman, other by Bernadine Evaristo

Another one that has been on my list for a while, last year’s Booker Prize winner does not disappoint. I am part way through and fascinated by the women I have met so far. A series of vignettes about different women’s lives it speaks to many different aspects of British culture and exploring black lives from different backgrounds and perspectives. It discusses race, political difference, and womanhood in a lively and thoughtful way.

And Next

N-w by Zadie Smith

White Teeth is probably one of my favourite novels in modern times but I haven’t read any of her work for a while so this book, about to be adapted to a BBC Drama seemed like an essential read.

If anyone else has reading suggestions, I would love to hear them.