Cover Image: The Liar's Dictionary

The Liar's Dictionary

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Member Reviews

Very well written, and thematically mature and interesting. The writing style was a bit too twee and pretentious for my personal taste - I prefer prose that can allow me to forget that a Writer is Writing. But objectively speaking, there is very strong stuff on display here.
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I requested this book because I thought the idea of playing on words sounded intriguing. Once I started it, I realised I did not have the patience to note the subtle undertones of the words being discussed, both the real and the made-up. This part did hinder my enjoyment of the book, but I slowly worked my way through it and did find other things to like about it.
It is a dual timeline, and the past does not have a very heavy bearing on the present. It is more like a slight interference. This basically meant I treated both as parallel individual stories except for when there were some repercussions felt in the present. Our protagonists (both past and current) work at a publishing house that published a dictionary. It was fascinating to see how the construction of such a thing would work, and for anyone even remotely interested in dictionaries, this will be even more enthralling. We have a man bored with his job, leading a life with a significant lie when he decides to throw more into circulation. His personal life gets pretty complicated by the time the narrative ends. In our current timeline, we have Mallory who is not so bored with the minimal work she now has to do with the dictionary, she is hiding part of herself from the world at large, and individually, her story was cute. The conversations she has with her partner are also pretty entertaining. It is not a fast-paced book but does have some unique content.
I received an ARC thanks to NetGalley and the publishers, but the review is entirely based on my own reading experience.
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If you love words, learning about the meaning behind them, and how they end up being used, you will love this book. Beautiful, whimsical, and truly unique, there is so much to be found in this story, and so much to be found in the words used to tell it.
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Split between the nineteenth century and present day, this is a delightfully exuberant, playful novel that is difficult to categorise or briefly summarise. Professor Gerolf Swansby embarked upon an ambitious project to produce his own comprehensive English language dictionary and encyclopaedia and set up premises in St James’s Square, London towards the end of the nineteenth century. Peter Winceworth, a junior lexicographer in the late 1890s works in Swansby’s large Scrivenery, tasked with defining words that begin with the letter ‘S’, which is a bit of joke upon him as he affects a lisp, making pronunciation a challenge in the office.  Mundane office life with his fellow lexicographers bores Winceworth to distraction and he feels side-lined and undervalued in his work. He thus decides to invent words, with meanings and definitions that are lacking in the English language. Affairs become more interesting when he meets Sophia, the engaging female companion of the office’s louche and wealthy Fresham, who seems to be there solely for his wealth and contacts.
	In the present day, David Swansby, is the sole surviving relative and the project still slowly continues uncompleted. This part is narrated in the first person by the twenty-something female Mallory, who is the only employee, a seemingly permanent intern. When the David Swansby discovers during the long drawn out digitalisation process that some of the words in Swansby’s dictionary have indeed been invented, Mallory is given the tasks of going through all the many thousands of original card index entries to weed out the rogue words, in what was Winceworth’s recognisable handwriting. Thus both Winceworth and Mallory are joined over the years. Definitely a story for logophiles and historical fiction devotees. It is decidedly clever, indeed literary, but it is a fascinating read and strangely amusing and eccentric. The oddest, but one of the best novels read so far in 2020.
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The Liar’s Dictionary is the first novel by British author, Eley Williams. In the final years of the nineteenth century, Peter Winceworth relieves the boredom of his work as a lexicographer on Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary by fabricating his own words and definitions for things he believes need one: certain feelings, sensations, emotions, acts, concepts, qualities that are, heretofore, not succinctly expressed. 

Peter isn’t nearly as passionate about his work as some of his colleagues, and they tend to ignore him, if not treat him with contempt. But then someone comes along who seems to hear him, and within forty-eight hours, events have driven him to insert his words, neatly written on the regulation blue index cards, into the pigeonholes that hold the dictionary’s entries. 

Over a hundred years later, David Swansby shares what he believes to be a potentially explosive secret with his young intern, Mallory. When he’s not distracted by playing historical online chess games, he is preparing the only published edition of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary (1930, incomplete due to loss of lexicographers to World War One) for digitisation, so it can be made available free online. 

Editors often add what is known as a mountweazel to protect copyright, but what David has stumbled across is clearly not that: there are too many of them. He sets Mallory the task, in between answering bomb-threat phone calls, of tracking them down from the original blue index cards, because the dictionary, online, in its current form, would be a laughing stock. 

Although winnowing out the false words is tedious, it’s certainly more interesting work than what she’s been doing so far: who can fail to be fascinated by the mind that creates words like: “cassiculation (n.), sensation of walking into spider silk, diaphanous unseen webs, etc” and “asinidorose (n.), to emit the smell of a burning donkey” and “agrupt (adj.), irritation caused by having a dénouement ruined”. 

Mallory’s flatmate (and lover, though she’s still vacillating about going public), Pip is concerned about the bomb threats, so comes to Swansby House. She observes “‘Once you start knowing there are made-up things in here, this whole dictionary is just a – I don’t know what to call it…. An index of paranoia.” It’s a good thing Pip has chosen to help…

The twin narratives are presented in alternating chapters, each titled with a letter and pertinent word (F is for fabrication), forming a story that likely goes where the reader will not be expecting. Less of the wordy preface and more of the fabricated words would have improved the overall experience. This is a novel that will probably appeal to those of a linguistic bent, but it doesn’t quite deliver emotionally. Eley Williams is an author to watch. 
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House UK.
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Very witty writing, and hugely enjoyable to read! The plot divided between the two protagonists, one in the 21st century, the other in Victorian times, is interesting, if not that focussed. The mountweazels are a great subject.
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Soon after I started this novel I realized that I am probably not the intended audience. I’ve never been the dictionary consultant type. My best friend and high school desk mate was. She used to write her literature essays with the Romanian dictionary on the table, researching the most sophisticated words and phrases to express her ideas. Me, I always preferred the more direct approach. Although I am more of a numbers girl, I still got top marks at literature but mostly for being clear and concise. When my friend wrote 5-6 pages essays I wrote 2 or 3. As you can see, although I love reading, including literary fiction, I am not a fan of pompous words, to write or read, doesn’t matter. So, the value of this otherwise fine and innovative novel is a bit lost to me. However, if you are like my friend, you might get it more.

The writing is not pretentious as one could expect from a book about words, it is actually playful. However for me it felt like watching a group of people exchanging inside jokes and feeling on the outside. The plot did not feel too exciting to me and I was bored by the characters as well. I gave it 3* because I think the book might a lot more for other people.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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* I was fortunate to receive an eARC of this book from William Heinemann and Random House UK but all opinions are my own! *

🖋 I read this book a few weeks ago now and it’s taken me this long to post about it because I just can’t quite gather my thoughts. I think it’s finally time...

This may be one of my new favourite books. Everything about this was right up my street. We follow two streams of narrative: a young intern called Mallory who works for a very novel dictionary company and is tasked with removing inaccurate entries, and the Victorian lexicographer who put them there, Winceworth. Why did he put them there? Who actually was he? Was he just having a bad day?

Spoiler: he has a very bad day. There’s a pelican involved.

This plot felt a little bit Pynchon in the way a small thing turned into an entirely different and bizarre tale - I adored it! The characters were funny and I really loved Mallory. She had her own issues to deal with and it was nice to follow her along with these. She’s an absolute sweetie. I’m sad to say goodbye to her and Pip.

If you love slightly bizarre stories with wonderful characters and warm fuzzy feelings, this may be the book for you. It’s full of love for words and you’ll find yourself reaching for your dictionary to try and decide which ones are true or not...
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The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams is very very wordy. If you love words you may well love this novel about the creation of a dictionary, I didn’t, I gave up before the 3rd chapter.

For me, this was too wordy, too self indulgent and trying too hard to be clever. That said lot’s of critics have been very impressed and it will probably turn out to be a cult novel which will mean that I have to pick it up and give it a second try!
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I have gobbled up every single piece of Eley's writing I could find since her short story collection, Attrib., while waiting for a novel, and here it is. The Liar's Dictionary is absolutely - and in the most literal sense of the word - word-perfect.

It tells two stories simultaneously, set in the St James' Park offices of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. One is set in 1899, where Peter Winceworth is feeling like a cog in a machine, and so has started to create his own dictionary entries, in the name of creative individualism. The second storyline sees Mallory, the only employee at the now almost-defunct Swansby's, trying to digitise the dictionary for a new audience. As well as uncovering Winceworth's invented entries, she's also receiving bomb threats over the phone.

Eley's writing, as always, is brilliant and genuinely exciting to read, turning language around and back on itself. There are so many clever little details, and I have definitely missed some. (Like this, for instance, is so great I sent a photo to my friend: "... diplopia (n.) 'an affectation of vision whereupon objects are seen in double'; diplopia (n.) 'an affectation of vision whereupon objects are seen in double'; ...") 

Sometimes, full length novels are really worth the wait. 

(Thanks for @netgalley for the ARC)
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With thanks to Random House and NetGalley for an ARC in return for an honest review.

This is a clever and enjoyable novel, especially if, like me, you love words and wordery. A really intriguing opening doesn't quite live up to its promise throughout, but it's absolutely worth reading.

A preamble about what makes the perfect dictionary sets the tone for a story in two halves, dealing with emotions, uncertainties, lack of confidence, and the right words to express these.  The book is laid out in 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, with alternating chapters set in the present day and Victorian times. The protagonist of the book is arguably Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, which in the late 19th century has got as far as the letter S, and in the present day is being digitised and scrutinised for mountweazels, fake entries deliberately inserted into a reference work, often to guard against plagiarism or copyright infringement. 

Our Victorian protagonist is Peter Winceworth (a name worthy of Dickens, surely?), who has fabricated a lisp so bad it excludes him from most interaction with his colleagues. As he is made fun of by them, chiefly by Terence Clovis Frasham, and falls in love with Frasham's wild and exotic Russian fiancee Sophia, his life spirals out of control and he deals with it by inserting made-up words into the dictionary to capture his feelings where no perfect word exists.

In the present day, Mallory is the intern who has been taken on to help with digitisation but is set to identify mountweazels, while fielding increasingly threatening anonymous phone calls. She is in a committed same-sex relationship but cannot bring herself to come out fully.

The two narrative strands intertwine, with discoveries in the present day shedding light on omissions in the Victorian strand. But the main joy lies in the language, the words, the occasional beautifully expressed sentence and sentiment. It's a very, very long time since I read a book with this many words I didn't know the meaning of, some of which are possibly mountweazels too.  

The ending is rather contrived, with both stories ending, as it were, with a bang. But it's not really about how the story ends at all, so do enjoy the ride.
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My thanks to Eley Williams, Random House and NetGalley for the ARC of THE LIAR'S DICTIONARY. I wanted to love this book, but I found it almost impossible to connect with it. Not for me!
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Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for an arc in return for an honest review

This was a fun little novel which was easy to read and enjoyable.

Mallory is a lexicographer working for a well known (for being unfinished) dictionary which is being digitised in an attempt to rekindle interest. During the course of her work, her employee David discovers that somebody in the past has inserted 'Mountweazels' as fictitious entries into the dictionary. Mountweazels usually a deliberate entry in a dictionary intended to protect against copyright infringement. The idea being that anyone copying the dictionary would copy the fake words too, thereby making them easy to spot. This practice is still very much in evidence today - electronic journals for example, enter fake strings into their publications, making it easier to track and locate e-resource abusers. The culprit of these fake entries we discover is Peter Winceworth a 19th century lexicographer out of sorts with his job and the world, who inserts these fictions into the dictionary as a coping mechanism. 

The narrative flip flops between these two in alternate chapters; Winceworth all nineteenth century farce and amusement. Mallory faced with the 21st century concerns of sexuality, computers, fire alarms and text messaging. 

The two stories adjoin neatly, Mallory is written in first person with sardonic but gentle humour, her internal monologue a riot of thoughts about interesting words, and musing on the day to day. Winceworth, third person,  all shy tendencies and nervousness, (who fakes a lisp for sympathy) coupled with resentment and a desire to do the right thing. His story also contains more physical comedy (there is a very amusing moment with a pelican) and more characters. 

The two leading roles although very different are made to dovetail very nicely, both (perhaps unsurpisingly) desire to find the right words for things - Mallory  "“I wished there was a word for marshalling a loved one to safety. I wish that I could be the one to coin it”", Winceworth sticking fabricated words into the dictionary to describe the feelings that he can't in the real world. Both have a penchant for thinking of people in amusing ways - Winceworth thinks of people as objects, one colleague is a carafe, Mallory thinks of a former overseeing of the dictionary Gerolf Swansby as someone whose name was "worth another round of spell-checking". Both end up going through some pretty dark places to get to a undefined but better future.

There is some great writing in this book, and some lovely use of language, as you might expect from a novel that has the creation and understanding of words at it's heart. Each of the 26 chapters is a letter of the alphabet and a word, some of which are pretty archaic, and chances are you will learn some new ones through the course of the novel. But the book is never preachy, it is never overbearing in it's cleverness or pretentious,

Lovers of language and those who love books about books will love it, but at its heart it is simple writing, both amusing and tender, with strong characterisation and a wry humour that everyone can enjoy. 

If there is a criticism to levy at it, it is that unfortunately I found myself enjoying one half of the narration much more than the other and wanting to get back to it, but I never found that it harmed the novel, it just had me plowing ahead to get to the next chapter. 

All in all a very enjoyable novel.
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'There is no such thing as the perfect dictionary.
Not every word is beautiful or remarkable, and neither is its every user or creator.
Finding the right word can be a private joy.'

Following her award-winning collection of short stories, 'Attrib'., Eley Williams' debut novel continues her exploration of identity, sexuality and language. In a split narrative we follow Victorian lexicographer Peter Winceworth and modern-day intern Mallory, both of them employed to work on the incomplete Swansby's New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Peter finds himself thwarted in love, falling for the fiancée of his arch-nemesis Terence Clovis Frasham, while Mallory is in a same-sex relationship with Pip but who has yet to fully come out. Mallory soon finds herself asked to discover the mountweazels placed in the dictionary by Winceworth in a fit of drunken pique - false words and definitions placed in the work. The two narratives become intertwined as the two main characters find themselves involved in a major catastrophe and are forced to face their future.

This is a book that will delight logophiles everywhere, and Williams takes supreme delight in the sound and definitions of obscure words. Which is fine, but after 'Attrib' and now this I feel that Williams has yet to completely find her own path. This is very much the territory of someone like Ali Smith, who also uses gender and sexuality as a main theme of her novels, together with her incomparable use of language, and so I constantly could not help but compare the two. There is plenty time for Williams to truly find her own voice, and this book continues to show her promise as a novelist to watch. She certainly can write beautifully, creating sentences to catch your breath: 'And "the girl behind the café counter" became, more usefully, the pronoun 'you' in the same way that many small details are not necessary but can become everything.'

The concept is interesting, there is perhaps a little too much melodrama towards the end, and the overuse, at times, of the linguistic puns and word play slightly detracts from this as a story and occasionally makes it more of 'look what I can do'. But, these are small criticisms and, as I say, this is an engaging and enjoyable read from a promising writer. It is also a worthy celebration of the book as a physical thing, which is always something to remember and treasure. 3.5 rounded up to 4 stars for its linguistic exuberance.

(With thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC of this title.)
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This is an enjoyable, literary book set in contemporary and Victorian London. Winceworth is a weak, "Diary of a Nobody" type who is struggling with his work on Swansby's dictionary, and we see his life fall apart fairly farcically - including fighting a pelican with a pen, getting covered in Pelikan ink, and being in a literal train derailment. He ends up coping by inserting his own made up words into the dictionary, where Mallory, stuck in a dead end job a century later, trying to digitise the unfinished dictionary, is set to finding them. 
I enjoyed the links between the stories and the word definitions that came up, and I particularly liked Mallory's relationship with her girlfriend and how it developed. The stylistic differences between the two threads were sometimes a bit jarring, but it was in the end a fairly amusing story.
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1899,Struggling with his own inadequacies Peter Winceworth has affected a lisp and hides behind it until he meets the wild Sophia.  His work for Swansby's Dictionary doesn't seem as valued as that of others so he decided to invent a series of words to insert.  Now,as Swansby's seems to be dying a death, young intern Mallory is charged with finding and removing these words, the mountweazels.  She is sure of her relationship with Pip but is reluctant to come out of the closet
This book is the subject of excellent reviews and there is the premise of an interesting tale here but it never really catches fire.  Maybe the author is trying too hard but I found the parts about Mallory insubstantial and rather affected to fit a plotline.  The sections set in Victorian times were more successful but didn't seem to go anywhere.  This was a pleasant enough read but nothing more than that
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This novel comprises two threads, one set in the twenty-first century and the other a century or so earlier, with the narratives alternating chapter by chapter, and much of the setting in the same building. The two plots are connected by an unfinished dictionary which is discovered (in the twentieth century) to contain many invented words.
Words fascinate me, and I enjoyed reading this book very much, although the satisfying ending seemed a little rushed.
With many thanks to the publisher and to Netgalley for giving me a copy of the book in exchange for this honest review.
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For me this book is just a confusion of ideas that fail to form any sort of contextual whole.  I dont know what other people were reading but for me this was just a nonsensical book
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What an absolute joy. Quirky, mesmerising and thoroughly enjoyable. The Liar’s Dictionary spools together the tales of two lexicographers c. a century apart; the former of which has added numerous false words and meanings which our modern protagonist must find. 

Brimming with luscious language, quirks and quiddities, I raced through this book. I spent a great deal of time grateful for the Kindle feature which allows you to tap on a word and the meaning pops up. That the cardboard sleeve on my takeaway coffee is called a zarf and is devised from us olde Turkish is one of many things that will stay with me. 

With thanks to Random House, Cornerstone and Netgalley for an ARC in consideration of an honest review.
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This book was reviewed on Splice on July 20, 2020: https://www.thisissplice.co.uk/2020/07/20/almost-lies-not-quite-fictions.
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