Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry was my January book for the From My Bookshelf Challenge 2023.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A richly written tale, full of interesting characters, vivid settings and beautiful prose. 4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Moving between Essex and London, myth and modernity, Cora Seaborne’s spirited search for the Essex Serpent encourages all around her to test their allegiance to faith or reason in an age of rapid scientific advancement. At the same time, the novel explores the boundaries of love and friendship and the allegiances that we have to one another. The depth of feeling that the inhabitants of Aldwinter share are matched by their city counterparts as they strive to find the courage to express and understand their deepest desires, and strongest fears.

Favourite Quote

I’ve always said there are no mysteries, only things we don’t yet know, but lately I’ve thought not even knowledge takes all the strangeness from the world.

(From The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, page 217)

Review

I’m not sure what is about Essex but they sure do like their myths of dragons and serpents! I had been introduced to the story of another serpent, which hails from just down the road from where this book is set, by Him-Indoors, in a place called Wormingford. Naturally, not believing Essex to be inundated by dragons, I’d wondered if the one in this story was the same. How interesting to learn that it wasn’t, or that Essex suffered an earthquake which registered 4.6 on the Richter scale. I do love it when fiction is a source of fact!

Once I finished the book, I felt rather than this being a story, with a beginning, middle and end, what you have is a snapshot into the lives and thoughts of a range of characters, all of whom were well-drawn, authentic, interesting and entertaining. Yet I felt there was no story to speak of, no direction to the tale. However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t think the book was worth reading, or that I didn’t enjoy it. I did. The story flows between and around these characters, and most of them interconnect in some way to Cora Seaborne and her desire to discover the truth behind the mystery of the Essex Serpent in the wake of her cruel husband’s death, whilst dwelling on the nature of relationships and friendships.

The cast of characters is fairly extensive. Cora Seaborne is interesting as the convention-breaking, Mary Anning-inspired wealthy widow. Dr Luke Garrett was entertaining as the boundary-pushing surgeon who is consumed almost entirely by his profession. But my favourite character was that of the determined Martha who is Cora’s companion and the nurse/nanny to Cora’s son, Francis. Her need to make the lot better for those of her class and background means no matter her audience, she will talk of social reform.

The settings were well-described and I could easily imagine each of them. Aldwinder, the fictitious Essex village, and the Blackwater Estuary were particular favourites, though the glimpse we are given of Colchester and the home partially destroyed by the earthquake were captivating.

The book cover is, of course, gorgeous, with a William Morris feel to it, and it was this which first persuaded me to the read the book. Another point worth noting is there are some truly delightful and poetic passages, with rich and flowery sentences, within the story.

Just a heads up: if you don’t like reading about horrible things happening to animals, there is a passage you might not enjoy in this book. I didn’t like it and it contributed to the loss of a star.

Rating

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Book Cover Love #6

Angelfall by Susan EE

This is one of those books that I bought simply because I loved the cover. The colours, the grungy style of the artwork and those angel wings…it immediately captured my attention.

I read and reviewed this book back in June 2016, and I ended the review with: “As paranormal reads go, this was both entertaining and captivating and I would not hesitate to recommend it to fans of the genre.”

You can read the review in full here.

Book Review: The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence

The Thieves of Ostia is the first book in The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

An entertaining, educational and engaging historical mystery for children. Also a quick, easy, fun read for adults. Highly recommended! 4.5 /5

Summary (from back of book)

Mystery and adventure for four young detectives in Ancient Roman times…

While investigating the disappearance of her father’s signet ring, Flavia Gemina makes some friends – Jonathon the Jewish boy, Nubia the African slave girl and Lupus the mute beggar boy. Together the friends start solving mysteries.

Can they discover who is killing dogs in Ostia, and why?

Favourite Quote

“All the wealth in the world is no good if you don’t have a family.”

(From The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence, page 44)

Review

First, my thanks to Joy over at Tales of Eneana for recommending this book to me a few years ago. Having now read it, I wish I had come to it sooner!

I really enjoyed this book, and as I read, couldn’t help but wish this series had been around when I was growing up!

The setting was wonderfully described, from mosaics to frescos, from house design to the lighthouse. The ancient Roman port of Ostia was brought to life superbly. One of my favourite locations was the cemetery outside the town walls, and the descriptions of the tombs.

The characters were varied and from all different backgrounds and walks of life. I could easily imagine Flavia and her friends, Jonathon, Nubia and Lupus, as well as Mordecai and Captain Geminus. Flavia is clever but isn’t a show-off, which makes for nicely balanced character. She is also sympathetic and compassionate, which balances the cruelties of the Roman world with what we expect in a protagonist in a modern story.

Even though this is a children’s book, the story was engaging and gripping. It’s a quick read, one I didn’t want to put down. I loved that the chapters were called “scrolls” and that there was enough historical information in the story for it to be educational as well as fun.

I was a little surprised by some of the subjects covered in the storyline, which included the killing of dogs (which is never easy to read) and suicide, but these issues were handled sensitively. As were the issues of slavery and the loss of family members.

The next book in the series is The Secrets of Vesuvius, which I am keen to begin reading soon! Highly recommended.

Rating

4.5 / 5

Recent Book Acquisitions

I’ve been on a bit of mystery binge lately. New books which have been added to my shelves include:

  • Death Goes on Skis by Nancy Spain
  • A Spoonful of Murder by J. M. Hall
  • Inspector Singh Investigates by Shamini Flint
  • Strawberry Shortcake Murder by Joanne Fluke
  • The Bangalore Detectives Club by Harini Nagendra

I’ve already started reading Inspector Singh Investigates and I’m enjoying it so much. Review coming soon…

Book Review: Wildings: The Secret Garden of Eileen Soper by Duff Hart-Davis

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A delightful, beautiful book, capturing a snapshot of an unchanging, rural corner of England, whilst also making a wonderful record of the life and artistic talent of Eileen Soper, her father George, and to a lesser extent, her sister Eva. 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

When Eileen Soper died in March 1990, the age of 84, executors found an astonishing treasure-trove at her home in Hertfordshire. Not only did the studio contain a great many paintings by her father George Soper, the celebrated horse artist, who had died in 1942. There were also more than 200 watercolours by Eileen herself, as well as a very large number of her drawings, sketchbooks and letters. Much of her work was done in the half-wild garden that surrounds Wildings, her home near Welwyn. Planted by her father, and designed as a sanctuary for birds and other creatures, the garden became the centre of Eileen’s life, when her father died, she and her sister Eva took it on, extended it, lived in it, worked in it, loved it and fought to protect it. In this magical haven birds would settle on Eileen’s head, and deer would come out to feed from her hand. This fabulous book details many of Eileen Soper’ nature artwork a must have for nature lovers as well as art lovers.

Favourite Quote

“For Eileen, the 1930s were and always remained a golden age, which her father’s engravings and paintings caught to perfection: his prints, she felt, reflected ‘the serenity that seemed then still to prevail on the land’.”

(From Wildings: The Secret Garden of Eileen Soper, by Duff Hart-Davis)

Review

I originally was given this book by my mother who thought I would love the illustrations for my junk journalling. However, on closer inspection of the book, we realised that the village in which Eileen Soper lived, the village where Wildings was built, was the next village up from where my own grandmother was born and spent the early years of her life.

Eileen Soper is perhaps best remembered for her illustrations and front cover art for many of Enid Blyton’s books, though her nature drawings and paintings, which I was unfamiliar with prior to reading this book, are beautiful.

The book is wonderfully illustrated with paintings, etchings, and sketches, by both Eileen and her father, George Soper. As well as the book being a biography of mainly Eileen, and contains snippets of the letters she wrote, there are also verses of her poetry too. A favourite read was on the subject of her dislike of modern art, which she conveyed in her own version of Rudyard Kipling’s If.

Making my way through the book, you can feel the sanctuary that was Wildings, especially in 1930s, for the family as a whole. There is art, there is creativity, there is collectiveness, and above all, you can feel the happiness. Also, although there is talk of many outings and holidays, there is a feeling of isolation and remoteness, which conjured a strange sadness in me as I read. I felt as if Wildings was set apart from the rest of the world, and those within its confines did all they could to keep everything inside it the same. But alas, the passing of time would not allow it.

Wildings: The Secret Garden of Eileen Soper is an interesting, engaging read, capturing a snapshot of an unchanging, rural corner of England as well as the essence and eccentricities of creative people in general, whilst also making a wonderful record of the life and artistic talent of Eileen Soper, her father George, and to a lesser extent, her sister Eva. I would highly recommend this book to those with an interest in the local area.

Rating

A Changing of Reading Habits

I’m not sure why, but this year I have completely ignored my own personal reading challenges. July came and went and so did Indie Only Month. Then August said hello, and then goodbye, as did Historical Fiction Month…

These little challenges have structured my reading year for the last ten years in some instances. And, each year, I have looked forward to them with relish and excitement, usually spending the preceding weeks and months putting together wish lists for books to be read and reviewed during the time set aside for the challenge.

Yet this year, things have been different. In part, I think it has been down to the fact that I am not reading as much as I have done in previous years. That’s not to say I’m not reading, I am, I just feel I am being more selective about what I read, as well as being a lot more critical of books I’m not enjoying or don’t live up to hype or expectations. In years past, I would have persevered with a book that felt a little slow or too bogged down in unnecessary detail. This year, if a book doesn’t grab my attention, I put it down and struggle to pick it back up – if I pick it back up at all.

It’s worth pointing out at this juncture, that if I have read a book this year, and gone on to review it, and that review has been positive, I really, really, meant what I said. It has taken a good book to get me through these past months, so if I said I liked it, I liked it a lot.

Another trend I’ve noticed with my reading habits this year, is that I have planned little of what I wanted to read. Instead, I am picking whatever takes my fancy, whether I’ve read it before, had it for years, or only bought it that morning. Usually, I have a pile which are my “next-to-read” books. That doesn’t seem to be working for me at the moment.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

I’m also finding that I am reading more than one book at a time, something I’ve not done since university. Now, I regularly have three books on the go. The first is The Lord of the Rings which I am reading as part of a read along over on my writing site – feel free to head on over there and join in. It’s low commitment at only half a chapter a week. Then I have a book by my bed, which admittedly I don’t read more than a handful of pages before I’m too sleepy to read. The third book sits on my coffee table, and I’m finding, this book sees the most progress.

Looking ahead, there are still two more challenges tentatively marked on the calendar: Halloween Reads and Festive Reads Fortnight. I am not planning on ruling them out at this moment in time, yet I do find myself wondering if I may have outgrown them.

So for now, the badges for the challenges will remain, as will their prominent links to the relevant pages on this site. Whether I will keep them up next year or look to restructure my book reading and reviewing system, remains to be seen, but will probably depend on how the last quarter of this year goes… However, I can’t ignore the fact that at the moment, I am posting twice a week with little difficulty, something I’ve struggled with. And that suggests to me very little planning seems to be working for me, for now, at least…

Book Review: Witch Bottle by Tom Fletcher

Quick Review (read on for full review)

An atmospheric, chilling read. Foreboding and dramatic, this horror story is perfectly balanced and blurs the lines between normal life and the supernatural. 3.5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

A deeply atmospheric literary horror novel about the nature of repressed guilt, grief and fear.

Daniel once had a baby brother, but he died, a long time ago now. And he had a wife and a daughter, but that didn’t work out, so now he’s alone. The easy monotony of his job as a milkman in the remote northwest of England demands nothing from him other than dealing with unreasonable customer demands and the vagaries of his enigmatic boss.

But things are changing. Daniel’s started having nightmares, seeing things that can’t possibly be there – like the naked, emaciated giant with a black bag over its head which is so real he swears he could touch it . . . if he dared.

It’s not just at night bad things are happening, either, or just to him. Shaken and unnerved, he opens up to a local witch. She can’t t discern the origins of his haunting, but she can provide him with a protective ward – a witch-bottle – if, in return, he will deliver her products on his rounds.

But not everyone’s happy to find people meddling with witch-bottles. Things are about to get very unpleasant . . .

Witch Bottle is literary horror at its finest, perfect for fans of Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney and Starve Acre.

Favourite Quote

I like to imagine that I live in one of the old farmhouses that dot the lonely moors, even though the thought of living in one of them makes me feel cold and afraid.

(From Witch Bottle by Tom Fletcher, page 12)

Review

Witch Bottle is a strange, sometimes weird, imaginative horror story. I think, if I’m honest, I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy at all, I just expected to enjoy it more.

There were plenty of things about this book that I thought were done very well. The atmosphere steadily built up until it became chilling. The book was well-written, easy to read and flowed nicely. I could easily picture the setting and the people Daniel met over the course of his day. The bizarre goings-on were so well-written that it was easy for the line between normal life and the supernatural to become blurred. Characters talking of ghosts almost seemed ordinary. Almost. And this gave the story a haunting, menacing, sinister quality.

Isolation was definitely one of the words I kept coming back to when I thought about writing this review. The isolation and bleak desolation of the setting. Daniel’s isolation from loved ones and family, and having very few real friends, if any. The isolation and loneliness that comes with issues of mental health. There is a chilling bleakness to this story, both in the narrative as the tale unfolds but in the backstory too. There’s is very little cheer here.

The story just felt a little too elusive for me, and I was unsure about the ending. Where the book had done so well balancing the creepy supernatural with normal life, making these strange goings on appear part and parcel of local, rural life, the ending felt a little out of step with the preceding tone.

Rating

3.5 / 5

Book Review: The Whole Cat and Caboodle by Sophie Ryan

The Whole Cat and Caboodle is the first book in the Second Chance Cat Mystery series by Sophie Ryan.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

This book is a great first book in a cosy mystery series. The characters were well-developed, the setting evocatively described and the plot engaging and entertaining. I absolutely loved this book and can imagine returning to read it again and again and again. 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Sarah Grayson is the happy proprietor of Second Chance, a charming shop in the oceanfront town of North Harbor, Maine. At the shop, she sells used items that she has lovingly refurbished and repurposed. But her favorite pet project so far has been adopting a stray cat she names Elvis.

Elvis has seen nine lives—and then some. The big black cat with a scar across his nose turned up at a local bar when the band was playing the King of Rock and Roll’s music and hopped in Sarah’s truck. Since then, he’s been her constant companion and the furry favorite of everyone who comes into the store.

But when Sarah’s elderly friend Maddie is found with the body of a dead man in her garden, the kindly old lady becomes the prime suspect in the murder. Even Sarah’s old high school flame, investigator Nick Elliot, seems convinced that Maddie was up to no good. So it’s up to Sarah and Elvis to clear her friend’s name and make sure the real murderer doesn’t get a second chance.

Favourite Quote

Like my grandmother, Charlotte thought tea fixed everything from a broken bracelet clasp to a broken heart.

(From The Whole Cat and Caboodle by Sophie Ryan, page 52)

Review

I absolutely loved this book and can imagine returning to read it again and again and again.

This book is a great first book in a cosy mystery series. The characters were well-developed, the setting evocatively described and the plot engaging and entertaining.

Elvis the Cat is fantastic and an interesting addition to the cast of characters. Animal characters can be really hard to write without making the story sound childish, but the author does a wonderful job here.

I also liked Sarah Grayson. She worked well as a main character. She is focused, determined, intelligent and strong, but she is also a little vulnerable meaning she is easy to connect with. She is surrounded by a wonderful selection of friends, some being her own friends from when she was younger, others being more like family.

I loved the setting, and if I wasn’t on the other side of the world, Maine is definitely a place I would like to visit, especially in the autumn. North Harbor sounded like a wonderfully touristy little town, and I would certainly have been happy to spend hours looking around Second Chance.

There is plenty of humour in the writing, making these mysteries a light, easy and enjoyable read. It was a gentle read, that pulls you into story, and I found it held my attention from beginning to end.

The only (very small) negative I had with the story was it felt a tiny bit repetitive in places. This was down to the cast of characters being so extensive and any time a development in the case was made, it had to be relayed to the characters that weren’t there. That’s not to say that great swathes of the book were repeated time and again, they weren’t, but rather the niggle came from variations of “so-and-so needed filling in / catching up”, etc.

The next book in the series is Buy A Whisker, and I’ve already bought it. I can’t wait to read it!

Rating

Book Cover Love #5

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

I love all of Karen Maitland’s stories that I’ve read.  She is, I think one of the best historical writers writing today.  And, I love the covers of her books as well as the tales inside of them.  They always ooze medieval eeriness…

I’m planning on re-reading The Owl Killers and posting a review of it in the not-so-distant future (I hope!).  It was this book that first introduced me to Maitland’s wonderful storytelling abilities, but the focus of this post is perhaps the book she is most widely known for…Company of Liars.

The cover art is simply amazing.  The colour, size and style of the lettering quickly create a feeling of the historical but it is the wolf’s head with the crosses and skulls and the runes, etc. that truly evoke a medieval atmosphere as well as the fear that naturally accompanied the spread of the plague.  This is certainly one of my favourite book covers of all time.

You can read my review of Company of Liars, posted on this site in August 2014, here.  Or visit my A-Z Review Index to find links to other Karen Maitland books I’ve reviewed.

Book Review: Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

Cross Stitch is the first book in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. If I’m not mistaken, it was released in the UK with this title, but elsewhere it was just called “Outlander”, which makes a lot more sense to me, I have to say.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Not necessarily an easy read, but this is a well-written piece of historical fiction, with a cast of well-crafted characters but most of all, a stunning setting. Not for the faint-hearted. 4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

CLAIRE RANDALL IS LEADING A DOUBLE LIFE, SHE HAS A HUSBAND IN ONE CENTURY – AND A LOVER IN ANOTHER…

In 1945, Claire Randall is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon in Scotland. Innocently she walks through a stone circle in the Highlands and finds herself in a violent skirmish taking place in 1743. Suddenly she is a Sassenach, an outlander, in a country torn by war and by clan feuds.

A wartime nurse, Claire can deal with the bloody wounds that face her. But it is harder to deal with the knowledge that she is in Jacobite Scotland and the carnage of Culloden is looming. Marooned amid the passion and violence, the superstition , the shifting allegiances and the fervent loyalties, Claire is in danger from James Fraser, a gallant and courageous young Scots warrior. Jamie shows her a passion so fierce and a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire, and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

Favourite Quote

‘I can bear pain, myself,’ he said softly, ‘but I couldna bear yours. That would take more strength than I have.’

(From Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon, page 671)

Review

This is a story of conflict. Of emotional conflict. Of Claire and her love for her husband, and of her greater love for Jamie Fraser. It is chaotic, powerful, and more than anything else, dangerous. It is also a story of physical conflict, of action, of armed conflict, where people often get hurt in horrible ways, and some of them end up dead. It’s quite brutal and tumultuous, really. Yet it is also a very good book.

This book is so well-written. A lot of thought has gone into the characters, especially Claire so that although she might be out of time, she isn’t necessarily out of place. Jamie Fraser is the perfect hero: a warrior, but understated; he’s not out for power or glory, he just wants a quiet life, yet he tries to speak out against injustice. Other characters I was fascinated by included Geillis Duncan who seemed to reveal in the idea that the local populace thought she was a witch, Murtagh who came across a little bit like a small wiry guardian angel, and I was also intrigued by the comparisons between Frank and Captain Randall.

There are some pretty unsavoury passages in Cross Stitch / Outlander and Captain Randall must be the cruellest creature I have ever come across in a book. There is also a lot of adult content (if you weren’t aware), including, sex, violence, what we would call domestic violence today, torture, and more besides. (Would the story read as well with this reduced or removed? I wonder…) It’s complex and gritty and harrowing, and the characters, mostly at the mercy of others (or lack thereof), are emotional, vulnerable, angry, desperate. This book is not an easy read in places. Yet there is also love, and kindness and compassion, to be found here too.

However, in terms of historical fiction, this book feels like it has gone the extra mile to make the time it is set in as realistic as possible. Life was dangerous, hard and often cruel, even more so for women. The author doesn’t believe in sparing the reader from the details of what her characters face, including their suffering.

What’s interesting in terms of the time travel aspect of this book compared to some that I’ve read, is that Claire has a very keen understanding of the history she is living through. She knows of the life changing historical events to come, and the stronger her connections with the past become, the more likely she is to interfere with the timeline, and this burden weighs on her.

The dialogue is well-crafted. I don’t often like dialogue written in dialect or accents because it can often pull me out of the story while I try and work out what is being said. However, here the dialogue, even written with a Scottish accent, is easy to read and understand, and adds to the reading experience, rather than detracts from it.

My favourite part of the whole story (perhaps even more than the love story aspect) is, unsurprisingly if you’ve read any of my reviews before, the setting. It is stunning, and the descriptions throughout the book bring eighteenth century Scotland to life. They are rich in flora, fauna, changes in the landscape and how people interact with their environment, and how mythology, folklore and superstition weaves through it. It’s mind-blowing in its richness and the level of detail.

My big problem with this book was with how long it was. It felt like I was reading it forever. That being said, I can’t call to mind where exactly I would have trimmed the book down. Everything felt relevant when I was reading and while I was reading it, I didn’t feel like I wasn’t enjoying it.

Following on from this, given how it is said readers tend to have a shorter attention span for reading today compared to thirty years ago when the book was first published, I wonder if the book was published today whether it would have been split into two, or even three volumes.

Will I be reading the next book in the series? Probably, but just not yet. It is a big time commitment to read such a vast volume, and I have a TBR list so long that it hurts just thinking about it. So for now, I am going to read some shorter, lighter stories…

Rating

4 / 5