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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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: 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 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: 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: Miss Pinkerton by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Cosy mystery at its best – a good story, interesting setting and a cast of intriguing characters. Highly recommended! 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Miss Adams is a nurse, not a detective—at least, not technically speaking. But while working as a nurse, one does have the opportunity to see things police can’t see and an observant set of eyes can be quite an asset when crimes happen behind closed doors. Sometimes Detective Inspector Patton rings Miss Adams when he needs an agent on the inside. And when he does, he calls her “Miss Pinkerton” after the famous detective agency.

Everyone involved seems to agree that mild-mannered Herbert Wynne wasn’t the type to commit suicide but, after he is found shot dead, with the only other possible killer being his ailing, bedridden aunt, no other explanation makes sense. Now the elderly woman is left without a caretaker and Patton sees the perfect opportunity to employ Miss Pinkerton’s abilities. But when she arrives at the isolated country mansion to ply her trade, she soon finds more intrigue than anyone outside could have imagined and—when she realizes a killer is on the loose—more terror as well.

Reprinted for the first time in twenty years, Miss Pinkerton is a suspenseful tale of madness and murder. The book served as the basis for a 1932 film with the same title, and its titular character appeared in several others of Rinehart’s most popular novels.

Favourite Quote

I had to chuckle at this quote, Miss Adams scathing appraisal of Florence Lenz:

“I knew her sort the minute I saw her. They never forget that their employer is a man, and when he is, like Mr. Glenn, pretty much a man of the world and not married, that he may represent anything from a tidy flat to a marriage license.”

(From Miss Pinkerton by Mary Roberts Rinehart, page 79)

Review

I really enjoyed reading this story. For a book first published in 1932, it was easy to read with a good pace and flow. It was engaging and entertaining, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on who I thought had done it for most of the story.

I liked the interaction between Miss Adams and Detective Inspector Patton, the latter vacillated between concern for the danger he puts Miss Adams in and the belief that she can take care of herself – which she can. He’s never condescending to her, and they both know, regardless of the danger posed by the suspects in the case, her curiosity will outweigh all other arguments and she will see it through to the end.

The best thing about Miss Adams character is that, although she is placed in her position by Patton, she is guided by what she believes is right or wrong, not the police investigation. She doesn’t simply do as she’s told. If she doesn’t agree with him, she doesn’t pretend she does – although she might keep her cards close to her chest. Neither does she ignore her own instincts.

The old Mitchell house made for an interesting setting. The family have fallen on hard times and died off until only Miss Juliet remains and her nephew, Hebert Wynne. The house was once a grand mansion but there being so little money, they have had to shut up most of it, especially the grander rooms. Smaller collections of rooms have been turned into apartments: a set for Miss Juliet, one for Hebert, and another for the servants, elderly married couple Hugo and Mary. Knowing there were rooms off limit, added an extra layer of tension to the storytelling which I appreciated.

This is the first book I’ve read by the author, and having seen that she was a prolific writer (Goodreads says there are 277 distinct works by her), I will definitely be reading more of her stories in the future.

I have a feeling I am going to be collecting these American Mystery Classics the same way as I’m collecting the British Library Crime Classics – and I think that says everything about what I thought to this book.

Highly recommended to mystery fans and fans of Golden Age Crime stories.

Rating

Book Review: Murder In Midwinter

Summary (from Goodreads):

Midwinter. As snow falls softly outside and frost sparkles on tree branches, it’s time to curl up before a roaring fire, wrap your hands around a steaming mug of mulled wine, and forget your worries for now.

But as the temperature drops outside, malice is sharpening its claws … and murder walks abroad. In these classic stories of mystery and mayhem, let ten of the great crime writers in history surprise and delight you with twists and turns as shocking as an icicle in the heart.

Featuring stories by Dorothy L. Sayers, Cyril Hare, Anthony Berkeley, Ruth Rendell, Margery Allingham, Ellis Peters … and more.

My Thoughts:

“Murder in Midwinter”, edited by Cecily Gayford, is the fifth anthology in the “Murderous Christmas Stories” series.

I enjoyed this collection of short stories. So much so that I bought another of the books in the series, “A Very Murderous Christmas” (Book 3).

My favourite of the stories had to be “The Man from Nowhere” by Edward D. Hoch, which I hadn’t read before and made reference to one of the most interesting (at least to my mind), historical mysteries. That of Kasper Hauser. Also, “A Present for Ivo” deserves a mention, written by one of my most favourite authors, Ellis Peters. Not only could she write wonderful historical fiction and mysteries, but her more modern stories and mysteries are enjoyably captivating too.

I had thought that all the stories would be set in the midst of the Christmas season (because of Midwinter in the title of the book), but one of them, at least, was set outside the festive period, in February.

Rating:

Book Review: A Proper Family Christmas by Jane Gordon-Cumming

Summary (from Goodreads):

This particular family Christmas is going to change everybody’s lives. William isn’t into Christmas. He’d like to spend it alone in his vast old house with his cat. Haseley House could be a gold-mine in the right hands and the family want to make sure it does end up in the right hands! Hilary intends to ignore Christmas. With Daniel away, she won’t have to conceal how desperately she still misses Ben. But widows aren’t allowed to spend Christmas alone, and it sounds as if William might need her support. Frances, the nanny, was hoping for a break from spoilt little Tobias, but now she’s told they’re to stay with his eccentric grandfather in some spooky old house.

My Thoughts:

I thought this was funny and very enjoyable in parts. Light-hearted, entertaining and amusing, but too much happens in just three days. William and Scratch the Cat were my favourite characters. The cast list was fairly extensive, and the majority of them, whether intentionally or unintentionally so, were unlikeable, and by the end it felt a little bit like a farce. That being a good thing or bad thing will depend on how much you enjoy farces and satire (I don’t mind them). It would probably make a good play or TV adaptation.

Rating:

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

Book Review: Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert

Quick Review (read on for full review)

An engaging thriller-style murder mystery that kept me guessing until the very end. A great cast of characters, a compelling setting and wonderful storytelling ensured there was never a dull moment. 4 / 5

Summary (from back of book)

A man is found dead in an escape tunnel beneath an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. Did he die in an accidental collapse – or was this murder? Captain Henry ‘Cuckoo’ Goyles, master tunneller and amateur detective, takes up the case.

This classic locked-room mystery with a closed circle of suspects is woven together with a thrilling story of escape from the camo, as the Second World War nears its endgame and the British prisoners prepare to flee into the Italian countryside.

Favourite Quote

“I’ve no objection to them playing baseball, as long as they don’t do it on the rugger pitch.”

(From Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert, page 78)

Review

This story is quite different to other British Library Crime Classics I have so far read.

From the title of the book you would be forgiven for thinking is a sombre, dark story but it’s not. More in the vein of The Great Escape, this story is a light, very British tale of prisoners-of-war being held in an Italian prison camp during WWII, where rank and hierarchy are maintained and the main goals are escape and deception. That is, until one of the prisoners is found dead in one of the escape tunnels.

This was a very interesting mystery that kept me guessing until the end. The complex relationships between those being held in the camp ensure you’re never quite certain of some of the characters motivations. Not only are British POWs being interred at this camp but other nationalities too, as well as the possibility or double agents and spies. Discovery is always a danger and heightened the tension throughout.

If you enjoy WWII films, especially of the ilk of The Great Escape, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy this one too. The author himself spent time in an Italian POW camp, and so brought his first-hand knowledge to the tale. It exudes authenticity and I was interested to learn the book was made into a film, which I would love to see one day.

Rating