From My Bookshelf – February 2023 Book Reveal

And February’s book is…

The Prince and The Pilgrim by Mary Stewart.

And the treat to accompany the book for February, hot chocolate and biscuits.


You can find out everything you need to know about the From My Bookshelf challenge, including links to the books as they are revealed, and the reviews once they are written, here.

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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

From My Bookshelf – January 2023 Book Reveal

And January’s book is…

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.

And the treat to accompany the book for January, some incense.


You can find out everything you need to know about the From My Bookshelf challenge, including links to the books as they are revealed, and the reviews once they are written, 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

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

ARC Book Review: Wrong Line, Right Connection by Karina Bartow

My thanks to the author, Karina Bartow, for sending me an ARC of her latest release to review. You can learn more about her books by visiting her website. She’s also my latest guest for Afternoon Tea at Sammi Loves Books. You can find Wrong Line, Right Connection on Amazon. Also her 2018 novel, Forgetting My Way Back to You, which also features Mabel, is available for $.99 on Kindle September 5-10.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Wrong Line, Right Connection is a light, sweet, whirlwind of a romance read. I loved the characters and the setting, but most of all I loved how Mabel and Roy connected! Fresh and entertaining, I enjoyed it from start to finish. 4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Could a mortifying day on the job end up netting you true love?

When switchboard operator Mabel Jennings reports to work on a Monday in the summer of 1964, she doesn’t have any interest in finding love again. A visitor from Coatesville, Pennsylvania changes that. On a business trip, Roy Stentz calls her station, and his deep yet kind voice intrigues her. She tries to remain professional, but in her smitten state, she connects him to the wrong line…twice, in fact. Finally, Roy invites her out to dinner, saying he wants to see if she’s a better date than an operator.

The haphazard introduction sets an unexpected romance into motion. Going out every night while he’s in town, their bond deepens as they share the tragedies they’ve endured and observe each other’s beautiful qualities. Mabel’s past travails with love, however, hold her back from committing to anything permanent. Will she overcome her reluctance and open her heart to the love calling out to her? Or will she hang up on her chance for happiness?

Favourite Quote

“Like a wounded soldier, she didn’t yearn to take in the battlefield one last time.”

(From Wrong Line, Right Connection by Karina Bartow, page 2)

Review

This was such a sweet, enjoyable read. Full of emotion and sentimentality, Wrong Line, Right Connection is a story of love after loss and heartache.

Mabel is a genuine, likeable character, and as the tale unfolds, you can’t help but root for her. She is also strong, caring and independent. Roy is sweet, charming and determined, yet his perseverance isn’t overbearing. He is the perfect gentleman, and I just love how their paths cross.

For a story where the couple in question fall almost instantly in love, there is nothing artificial or unbelievable in this tale. Rather, their romance is not only convincing but perfectly plausible in the way it’s told. The writer does well in showing the reader that although the relationship appears fast-moving, the couple don’t ignore their sensible reservations either. The story is fresh and entertaining and I enjoyed it from start to finish.

My favourite character (besides Mabel, of course) was Mabel’s friend Evelyn. Their friendship was heart-warming to read, and the way she always knew what to say to Mabel to either pick her up when she was down or in an attempt to make her see the error of her way, was fantastic. Everyone needs a friend like Evelyn.

I know very little about 1960’s America, but the setting was brought wonderfully to life. I could easily envisage where Mabel worked, the truck Roy drove, the theme park they went to, as well as all the other locations visited. The flashbacks included in the narrative added another dimension to the story, helping not only to bring Mabel’s backstory to life but to illustrate the thinking behind some of her motivations.

If you’re looking for a quick, gentle, but above all sweet romance read, I can happily recommend this story to you.

Rating

Book Review: The 1066 from Normandy by Howard of Warwick

The 1066 from Normandy is the sixteenth book in The Chronicles of Brother Hermitage by Hugh of Warwick.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

An engaging and entertaining medieval murder mystery, with a cast of wonderful characters and an interesting setting. A thoroughly enjoyable read. 4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Death and taxes… with extra death.

Yet more medieval detective-sort-of-thing from the best selling author…

Brother Hermitage, the King’s most medieval investigator, is about to discover the true meaning of the Norman Conquest; money.

It’s all very well Saxons fighting William on the battlefield and trying to kill him, but evading his taxes is simply beyond the pale. Something must be done about it. And who better to do something about things than his own investigator?

The first problem is that the King’s Investigator doesn’t understand what it is. But then not understanding things has never held him back in the past.

If tax evasion is a bad thing – which William assures him it is – then the people who do it are positively revolting. Hermitage has dealt with deceit, dishonesty and deception in the past, but he’s never met people who have made it their life’s work.

Needless to say, Wat and Cwen the weavers are dragged into this, quite literally, and Wat seems to know rather too much about dodging tax.

And then, of course, the bodies start piling up. Death and taxes, eh? Who’d have thought…

Favourite Quote

There were so many passages I could have quoted from this book, most of them by Cwen, but I thought this universal truth seems very relevant in today’s world:

“Rich people do tend to behave worse about their money than people who haven’t got any,” Cwen agreed.

(From The 1066 from Normandy by Howard of Warwick, pager 222)

Review

The Chronicles of Brother Hermitage have been on my “To read / To buy” list for ages, so when I stumbled across this one in a shop I couldn’t resist, even though it is the sixteenth book in the series. Now, I don’t usually start a series part way through, but my usual reservations about doing so were unfounded. I could follow along perfectly well, and am looking forward to reading many more volumes in this series.

I loved the characters. Brother Hermitage is hilarious and Wat the Weaver and Cwen are perfect sidekicks. Cwen, in fact, was my favourite. Together, these three characters make for an engaging, entertaining story, and their camaraderie is just perfect for a cosy mystery series. Le Pedvin was sinisterly scary as the right-hand man of King William (he also happens to think Brother Hermitage is an idiot!) and as for the conspirators the trio meet along the way, they are devious and deceitful and of course, cannot possibly be trusted.

I loved the setting. Exploring the Midlands of a thousand years ago really highlights the change in the landscape compared to the Midlands of today. What was green and forested then (except for some mines and a few hovels) is now heavily urbanised and built upon. I also loved how Chesterfield was such a disappointment to the travelling group when they arrived there, having expected at least a village where they could stay, rather than a hovel close by to some old Roman ruins of a fort.

I loved the story. Taxes are of course, boring and complicated, but when combined with a plot to withhold them from the king, they can also become deadly. I thought it wonderful how Brother Hermitage, as the King’s Investigator, is given a mission to uncover this plot when he simply doesn’t understand all this talk of tax. It baffles him and he can’t understand why anyone would get involved in it. Luckily for him, Wat and Cwen seemed to have a perfect understanding of tax-dodging, which although helpful to Brother Hermitage, also alarms him a great deal!

All-in-all, I loved this book and will be returning to read more from the series in the future. I recommend this to anyone who’s interested in reading a light-hearted murder mystery set in the years after the Norman conquest.

Rating

Quick Review: Mrs Budley Falls from Grace by M.C. Beaton

Mrs Budley falls From Grace is the third book in The Poor Relation series by M.C. Beaton.

Summary (from Goodreads)

Another Poor Relation has to resort to genteel thievery to make end meet – but she gets much more than she bargains for!

Cut off by her own relations, pretty, dainty widow Eliza Budley must visit some other family manor to purloin expensive baubles. Happily, the rich Marquess of Peterhouse is in his dotage and wouldn’t know a relative from a bedpost, so Eliza is sent to play the imposter.

But things do not go as planned and Eliza is met by the new Marquess – wickedly handsome, and with all his wits about him. And somehow Eliza finds herself confessing her bluff to him and he in turn is much taken with her daring and charm – but can he fall in love with such a scheming widow from the world of trade? Time for the other Poor Relations to get involved and help these confused lovers!

Review

A wonderful light-hearted read. I always find that if I’m in a bit of a reading slump, I can rely on M.C. Beaton to cheer me up!

Entertaining and engaging, Mrs Budley Falls from Grace, like the other books I have read so far in the series, is an easy, quick read. It doesn’t require much brain power to follow along, and you know how the stories are going to end.

What I like about this series is that the romance isn’t too much. It isn’t the focus of the story, but there is enough there for it to be called a romance. I also like how the Regency period is brought to life – it’s not all balls and celebrating the season in town whilst in search of a husband. For those poor relations – as well as just the poor of society – it would have been a hard life. However, there is still enough of the charm we have come to expect of the Regency for stories to still have a happy ever after, no matter how unlikely.

All-in-all, this was a fun, undemanding read. The next book in the series is Sir Phillip’s Folly, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it!

Rating

Quick Review: The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood

Summary (from back of book)

Set a guard upon your soul…

When Nathaniel Kerner takes up his new position as a mad-doctor at Crakethorne Manor, the proprietor, more interested in phrenology and his growing collection of skulls than his patients’ minds, hands over the care of his most interesting case.

Mrs Victoria Harleston’s husband accuses her of hysteria and says he will pay any price to see her well. But she accuses him of something far more terrible…

Nathaniel becomes increasingly obsessed with the beautiful Mrs Harleston – but is she truly delusional, or is she hiding secrets that should never be uncovered?

Review

I remember when I purchased this book. I instantly fell in love with the cover. It’s beautiful. I also fell in love with the title. There was something quite mysterious and atmospheric about it…So did the story live up to my initial impressions?

In places, but I’ll admit I wanted to like this book more than I did, hence the mixed review.

What did I like about the book?

The setting. It was atmospheric and Gothic. A perfect place to set a story about madness.

The characters. Especially the background characters, those residing in Crakethorne Manor, I found to be pertinent in evoking the atmosphere.

The storyline. Even now, as we try and break the stigma around mental health issues, there are still some people who fear that madness can be catching. Back in the 1850s, this fear was commonplace and had been for a long time. So a story about madness, focusing on the mad, and the doctors trying to treat them without becoming mad themselves is certainly an interesting subject, even if today we have a much better grasp of mental health issues.

The historical descriptions. The story was spot-on-perfect for historical detail, and helped bring the story to life. Nothing stood out to me as out of place.

What did I not like about the book?

I struggled to connect with the main characters, and though I was interested in the story, I didn’t really have any strong feelings as to what became of them. I found Nathaniel’s obsession grating for a while, which didn’t help.

I also found the middle part of the book slow and heavy going, and I actually stopped reading it for a time, before returning and finishing it (which I’m glad I did). The ending was good and even justified some of the points I hadn’t liked earlier in the story (for example, Nathaniel’s obsession).

So a bit of a mixed review, but I would read more from this author.

Rating

3.5 / 5

Book Review: The Crystal Skull by Manda Scott

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A good historical fantasy adventure, woven through with elements of suspense and mythology. 3 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Fact: Five thousand years ago, the Mayans carved thirteen crystal skulls.

Fact: To protect humankind, they sent them to the four corners of the globe.

Fact: They gave a precise date for when they thought the world would end: 21 December 2012.

Fact: They said that this time the destruction will be of man’s making.

Fact: Only when all thirteen skulls are reunited can the world be saved from its fate.

For the last 500 years one skull has been missing. Now it’s about to be found …

Favourite Quote

It was only a horse, a white horse, carved in simple, flowing lines from a green hillside to show the white chalk beneath.

(From The Crystal Skull by Manda Scott, page 375)

Review

I wanted to like this book more than I did, but I just felt like there was too much going on. The dual timelines of the Elizabethan and present day, although providing the space to create a very interesting story – and it was interesting – ensured there is too much to do and see, and a lot of story to tell. This book comes in at 500+ pages and it needs to be that long to cover so much story.

Apart from that, this is a good historical fantasy adventure, with elements of suspense and mythology woven through it. The settings were were evocative: in the modern timeline they included an unexplored cave network, the White Horse of Uffington, and the ancient Ridgeway. In the 16th century, we are given a glimpse of the wider world as Cedric Owens travels from Elizabethan England, to France, then Spain, then across the ocean to the New World, to New Spain. What’s more, I could envisage quite clearly each of the locations visited, either in the past or present.

I liked a number of the characters, although I didn’t feel much of a connection to any of them. The adventure element in Cedric Owens timeline was fun and engaging, and his friendship with Fernandez de Aguilar was well-written.

I can imagine this would make a fantastic film if given the opportunity.

Rating