‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry.

I truly felt lost within the mists of time.

Last month, I wrote a less than positive book review on Sarah’s Perry debut novel ‘After Me Comes The Flood’. Though, it was the upcoming author’s second novel ‘The Essex Serpent’, which I was actually introduced to first. Based on some stellar reviews, being shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and winning the Waterstones Book of the Year 2016, I was very much looking forward to getting stuck into the 417-page novel. Besides all that, Essex is where I’m from!

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Inside the front cover, with a William Morris design.

Tell Me About It ———–‘The Essex Serpent’ is set against the backdrop of 1890s Britain during a time of technical development and scientific endeavour. Cora Seaborne, recently widowed, has been liberated from an unhappy marriage to an unpleasant civil servant. Relieved of her duties and “stripped of code and convention” she seeks refuge in her late childhood memories and escapes the rigidity of the claustrophobic city for the wild and open landscape of the Essex county, in the Spring. In traditional feminist style, Cora doesn’t identify with the conventional expectations of a Victorian lady. Instead, the young ‘Mary Anning’ dresses for practicality and enjoys getting close to the mud and the raw beauty of the natural landscape. When Cora hears the folktale of the Essex Serpent which has apparently come to life and is abducting the locals of the Blackwater Estuary, she cannot resist investigating.

“There is strange news out of Essex…”

Writing Style———–I feel that there is a high level of intelligence to Sarah Perry’s writing as she has a wonderful gift for composing poetic and flowing descriptive passages of the Essex of her childhood (Sarah Perry did study Creative Writing at Royal Holloway); such as those of the marshes across the Essex coast and the sensoria of the wet woodlands. I truly felt lost within the mists of time and winds off the coast. There is also the beautiful prologue that explores the way in which time manifests itself in different ideas and abstract forms. It’s the kind of writing I aspire to achieve, though regrettably with only moderate success!

An original woodcut of the Essex Serpent. Credit: The Guardian.

Themes & Characters —————There are various themes which ‘snake’ their way throughout the narrative of the story. The most prominent character, the local parish priest, who is a person of faith but reluctant to surrender to superstition. Whereas Cora, a woman of science, is irresistibly drawn to folklore and fear-inducing rumour. Their burgeoning friendship as well as juxtaposing characteristics make for a delicate and intriguing relationship. The nature of faith and faith in nature intertwine throughout Perry’s novel, which has a strong respect for friendship and a humanity. I also appreciated Perry’s contemporary approach to a traditional social setting with her recognition of Cora’s son, Francis’s Autism, which would have undoubtedly gone undiagnosed in Victorian times

Thoughts?————– The Essex Serpent is compelling, though equally complex and again I felt the plot began to lose its way, which is a great shame. The story repeatedly jumped between characters and philosophical concepts, as opposed to focusing on the narrative and the mystery itself. About halfway through, long and winding passages filled with red herrings and abstract ideas overwhelmed the story, and I just couldn’t finish it! And so to me, the Essex Serpent remains a mystery. You could argue that this only fulfils the wistful beauty of the parish myth. However, ‘The Essex Serpent’ is an initially promising book with simply lost potential. Perhaps I’ll come back to ‘The Essex Serpent’ one day and even write a revised review!

Despite my personal difficulties with getting through the novel, I would still very much recommend it for its beautiful passages alone, with a 3.5-star rating. This paperback publication also includes a selection of thought-provoking questions for budding reading groups to prompt discussion, and there’s an interesting interview with Sarah Perry in the back. Have you read ‘The Essex Serpent’? Tell me your thoughts!

First published in 2017 by Serpent’s Tail.

Written by Sarah Perry, front cover design by Crow Books.

ISBN: 978-1781255452

 

 

‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Peter Abrahams – A cosy Young Adult novel.

Dear followers, I hope you enjoy this cosy book review. Have a hot chocolate with it!

On what was a suitably wet and windy afternoon in 2012, I gave up the ongoing struggle to make friends and sought refuge in a quiet corner of the school library, which was always warm and inviting in September. After a couple of minutes scanning through the limited selection of ‘New Releases’, wrapped and sealed in their protective jackets, I came across a distinct purple paperback – it seemed better quality than most YA fiction.

It had a cover illustration (now out of print) of a towering solitary house secluded by a pair of tall, crooked trees, and the title itself – ‘DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE’. I couldn’t resist a novel that honoured the classic children’s story. And at the time, I was stuck in a deep pit of confusion and rejection, longing for a sense of connection and familiarity – when this empathetic little gem fell into my hands. No one had read it yet, it’s pages smelt new, undiscovered! I borrowed it there and then.

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Front Cover of the newest edition.

‘Down The Rabbit Hole’ is a 352-page Young Adult crime/ mystery novel written by Peter Abrahams. Whilst this may not be the newest book to write a review on (it was first published in 2006!) I still think that it’s an enthralling, lesser-known fiction which all inquisitive, cosy book lovers should have the opportunity to discover!

Thirteen-year-old Ingrid Levin-Hill lives at 99 Marple Lane in Echo Falls, with her mum and dad, her brother Ty and the family dog, Nigel. Ingrid plays football, has landed the lead role of Alice ‘in Wonderland’ in the school play, gets decent grades at school, and idolises Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional hero, Sherlock Holmes. One day, when Ingrid gets lost between her orthodontist appointment and football practice, she crosses paths with Katherine Kovac, or “Crazy Katie”. A retired actress turned social misfit, she lives alone in the poorer part of town and invites Ingrid into her home to call for a cab.

Harking back to childhood, I could remember the shameful experience of getting lost in town and the feeling of panicked disorientation and desperation to get back home again. And so, I could strongly connect with Ingrid’s sense of unease in these early scenes.

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Ingrid meets “Crazy Katie”.

The next morning, however, Ingrid reads that Katie has been found dead in her home, and Ingrid is a key witness in the moments before her death. Perhaps more disturbingly, Ingrid has left her football boots behind – at the scene of the crime! In a mission to retrieve her Pumas and a compelling desire to solve the mystery, Ingrid slips into a dark subculture of murder and mystery and metaphorically falls ‘Down The Rabbit Hole’.

What I truly loved about this novel, was it’s rich sense of atmosphere. Echo Falls is a gentrified suburban town, with discreetly obscured secrets. Abrahams goes a long way to emphasise this through the use of light imagery contrasted with shadows and a detailed history of a family known as the Prescotts. As a child, Ingrid finds herself caught up in this dangerous adult world and despite coming off as a bit ‘Famous Five-ish’, it does give leeway for some gripping, scenes towards the main chunk of the novel.

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The beautiful Back Cover.

However, there were some topical issues in this novel which I didn’t agree with, simply for the way they were handled by the author. The apparent normalisation of younger brother Ty’s use of steroids in his physical training regime and then, we have a casually brushed off incident where Ty flies into a fit of rage and gives Ingrid a black eye. Another was with Ingrid’s continuous dishonesty towards those around her – particularly her relationship with Detective Inspector Strade. My final issue was that this was written by an America author; I couldn’t understand the American sporting aspect of the novel which featured quite heavily, and a lot of the regional social characteristics went straight over my head. There was also the use of cell phones and MSN-style chatrooms which seemed slightly dated, haha! Nevertheless, I enjoyed ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ and I would describe it as an atmospheric, gripping, rainy day, good quality sort of book.

Though the novel seems to be aimed at teenagers, I would recommend it to pretty much anyone.

Published in Great Britain in 2006 by Walker Books Ltd, Reprinted in 2012

Written by Peter Abrahams, front cover design by Richard Merritt

ISBN: 978-1-4063-3070-0

Wishing you all a lovely bank holiday weekend!

‘After Me Comes the Flood’ by Sarah Perry – I didn’t like it.

{Saturday 21st April}: If like me you live in Britain, you’ll be well aware of the recent heatwave we’re experiencing, with temperatures as high as 29.C degrees – the highest in April for 70 years! I woke up this afternoon (cheers, insomnia) from the depths of an amazingly vivid patchwork dream, which I’m still experiencing the hangover from. And in my state of confusion and distant consciousness, I remembered reading the equally evocative and heady writing in Sarah Perry’s debut novel ‘After Me Comes the Flood’. First of all, I didn’t like it much. Here’s why…

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March Winds and April Summers.

Since I’m sitting here in an empty house with a mug of hot tea, (we Brits drink tea in all weathers) I think, to establish the opening scenes of the novel is the perfect way to begin.

This 230-page debut by Sarah Perry centres itself around the mundane life of a solitary man, John Cole, who owns a bookshop in London. When the perpetual silence of his shop and the feverishly hot weather become too much, John decides close early and leave for Norfolk where his brother lives by the coast. On his way, John’s car breaks down and when he ventures off in search of help, he comes across an unusual house in a clearing in the countryside. The mood from this point on takes a colder turn and starts to decline.

 

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A gorgeous cover, but looks can be deceptive!

John is welcomed by a scruffy and slightly childlike family who know his name and claim to have been waiting for him for some time. There is a broken sundial on the lawn and John later finds mysterious, cryptic graffiti in his laid out room. The house emanates stagnation from its unsightly descriptions and sensory imagery to its inhabitants who seem to have become part of the woodwork, not attaching themselves to a particular time or place. Not only did I find this slightly disorientating, but the juxtaposition of setting with the family’s warmth and friendliness created a feeling of unease throughout.

John tries to inform them that he is not who they think he is, but every time he is briskly ignored or misses the opportunity to speak out. Accepting the family’s hospitality with some degree of guilt, he waits for the earliest opportunity to make his unannounced escape. Of course, this is prolonged further and further, which only added to my level of frustration. I got the impression that the novel was like a very weird dream and its style reminded me very much of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. You’ll have to read into it to find out, but let’s just say it’s left a lasting impression upon my studies in Literature!

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Credit: Unknown Source.

I thought the novel started off very promisingly with a high degree of intrigue, and Sarah Perry’s beautiful flair for lyrical and poetic passages is indisputable. However, when this and an excessive amount of boring dialogue overwhelms the novel, her writing (in my humble opinion) comes across as quite pretentious. The story lacked a chunky middle and an end, and it quickly became confusing and dull. Instead, I got the impression that the novel was a showcase of Sarah Perry’s capabilities as a creative writer rather than a fully fledged author. I’d say that it’s a typical book that will appeal to the feminine mind – only I’m not a typical female reader. Nor is it my cup of tea. 

 

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Some positive reviews. I’ll leave it to you!

Published in 2014 by Serpent’s Tail, Reprinted 2017

Written by Sarah Perry, front cover design by Peter Dyer

ISBN: 978-1781259559

‘Just One Damned Thing After Another’ by Jodi Taylor.

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If a combination of light science-fiction with history sounds appealing, and you haven’t read Jodi Taylor’s ‘Just One Damned Thing After Another’ – then WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?! This was certainly the question I asked myself when I finally got round to reading this 280-page novel, and right now I’ve no more than a couple of short minutes to do the generous thing and convince you of the same — and do this excellent book justice!

Arnold Toynbee’s quote that “History is just one damned thing after another” perfectly encapsulates the informal and amusing events of the narrative within; and despite having an average rating of 4.5 stars from 1,500 reviews on Amazon UK, this novel has somehow slipped under the bestseller radar. It is extremely rare (never) that I’ve found a niche book that I’ve loved so dearly – and so, I think the wider inquisitive book-buying community should know about this best-kept secret. Bestsellers are frequently overrated anyway. Yes – I went there!

To begin; the narrative largely centres itself around ‘St Mary’s Institution of Historical Research’, which is connected to the fictional University of Thirsk. Thirsk is actually a small civil parish in Northern Yorkshire, England. Anyway, ‘Just One Damned Thing…’ is an absolutely bonkers [British informal: mad; crazy] book, and because there are time machines involved, you will be forgiven for the preconception that this book will go down the “it’s a bit naff” path. In contrast, I assure you that this novel is such a barrel of upbeat, enthusiastic youthful fun, you can’t help but get carried along with it! (Just to confirm – it is an adult book.) Not only do the instantly loveable characters live history, I too embarked on a rollercoaster ride of laughs, tears and anxiety – living it, and thoroughly enjoying it with them.

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No spoilers here: A flavour for the dialogue, taken from the second novel.

The story follows our main protagonist Madeline ‘Max’ Maxwell – who is rescued from an unhappy childhood to become the latest innocent recruit at St Mary’s. After signing a contract of confidentiality, she soon finds that things are less book-dusty and a lot more exciting, behind the building’s innocuous facade. The delightfully eccentric staff at St Mary’s ‘investigate major historical events in contemporary time’ with the aid of half a dozen pods docked in the ‘Hawking Hanger’ and a number of departments including the Technical team, Research & Development, IT – let’s not forget the all-day catering staff and more, which are all overseen by the composed and equally commanding Dr Bairstow – Director of St Mary’s. St Mary’s is a hive of activity with frequent bangs and crashes, and its staff are a credit to the happy, family-like environment it radiates.

Following her training and graduation to become a fully fledged historian, Max’s job along with other St Mary’s historians is to observe and document historical events, and not die in the process. Sounds simple, right? Especially when there is a rogue time-jumping maniac, Ronan – who is hell-bent on seeking vengeance and destroying the institution in the process. The narrative isn’t as plain as initially laid out, as there are twists and turns which run in parallel to the main arc. There are dinosaurs in the Cretaceous (think of Primeval, cutting edge for its time) – blood and vicious battles, explosions and mud, disturbing instances of sexual abuse, mind, and spine-chilling betrayal. To top it all off, Taylor’s portrayal of ‘time’ is like that of a living organism, which quite literally ‘retaliates’ to stop anyone who tries to meddle with the order of events.

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2007 hit British Sci-Fi series, ‘Primeval’. There are a lot of similarities between the novel and this show. Credit: Impossible Pictures.

 

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The 2014 Audible book offers a fantastically immersive experience!

Of course, there will always be a certain reader who will be snobby of this straightforward style of writing – but in my humble opinion, a book’s sole purpose should be to engage and delight – it should never be hard work. If you take the book for what it is – a light-hearted bundle of very British fun, which is predisposed with an introductory ‘Dramatis Thingummy’, I guarantee you’ll fall in love with it and want to join St Mary’s. And if I can convince just one or two people to give this a read, I’ll die a happy bookworm. I welcome you to the Chronicles of St Mary’s series. Thank you, Jodi Taylor!

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A helpful ‘Dramatis Thingummy’
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The book blurb…

 

Published in 2013 by Accent Press, Reprinted 2015.

Written by Jodi Taylor.

ISBN: 978-1910939529

‘The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack’ by Mark Hodder.

One place you’re most likely to find me is: nowhere. I don’t get out much; I mainly escape through the pages of the latest book I’m reading. After many school years over-analysing lines of text, I had forgotten how to simply read a book. It wasn’t until Christmas that a tall stack of gifted novels triggered me into making a first determined effort to break the back bone of my reading anxiety. As it turns out, I enjoyed the first book I read so much, that I decided to write a book review on it here:

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The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack’ (2010) is a 479-page Victorian Steampunk novel, written by Mark Hodder. I was initially apprehensive, because if reading the dystopian passages of Mortal Engines was anything to go by, then I would find this one mighty tough read. However, this exciting novel is set in an alternative ‘Albertian’ London and makes use of an array of 19th-Century historical figures. Sir Richard Francis Burton is the multi-disciplined and charismatic protagonist who investigates two parallel subplots. The more interesting of which is his terrifying encounter with the alien figure of Spring-Heeled Jack. I enjoyed Hodder’s use of a third-person narrative, told from the perspective of Burton, as I ‘shared’ the sensation of being plunged into a murky world of terror and mystery. I also liked the fact that I had stumbled across a story about the lesser-known urban myth of Spring-Heeled Jack. There are too many stories which revolve around Jack the Ripper and if you haven’t heard of Spring-Heeled Jack before, then just a mention opens you up to a new avenue of education into English folklore.

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   Credit: The British Library.

At no point is the plot tiresome and this is diverted with the aid of Burton’s youthful and naive companion Algernon Swinburne. Swinburne not only provides opportunity for exciting and daring plot twists but instant likeability and flippant humour along the way. I was able to sit down with this book and become engrossed in its pages 2-3 hours at a time.

Another thing I appreciate, and respect is Hodder’s extensive knowledge of the period and this is clear with his rich detailing of factual events that occurred at the time. Not only does this offer a real flavour for 19th-Century history, but the material is beautifully entwined with fictional creativity. If you have an appreciation for the Victorian period, this book will be well within your comfort zone – both engaging and rewarding with a few delightful guest appearances sprinkled throughout. On the fictional side, the narrative is set against the backdrop of an alternative London, where the Romantic-like factions of society known as the Rakes and hard-line Libertines are waring with the Eugenicists and Technologists, who form the backbone of the empire. There are velocipedes and swearing messenger parakeets, a vicious albino panther man, and wolves which kidnap chimney sweeps in the smog. And Burton finds himself plunged into this insane reality when he is called upon by Prime Minister Lord Palmerstone as the King’s secret agent, to investigate the strange disappearances. For a considerable chunk of the novel I wondered about the significance – if any – of Hodder choosing to write a story in ‘Albertian’ Britain. As it turns out, there was a lot of significance and this concept was a result of a key part of the plot.

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Just when I thought things were being tied together, Hodder flipped the narrative on its head and the reader gains a completely new version of the story from a different perspective. Yes, the novel has elements of Victorian Steampunk in it, but I’d argue that this doesn’t define it. The combination of a 19th-Century setting, the mystery, grime and Hodder’s detailed navigation around London are what largely set the mood, and this isn’t the typically ‘dry’ result you get from a lot of books set in similar periods, like Terry Pratchett’s ‘Dodger’ (sorry Terry).

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If I had to find something potentially negative in Hodder’s writing, it would be his characterisation of female figures. And characters like Isabell Arundell and the famous Florence Nightingale have very limited dialogue to none whatsoever, which makes them come across as quite two-dimensional. However, in a period which was effectively a man’s world, I guess this can be accepted. Another questionable aspect were instances of assault, but again in the greater context of the storyline, it made sense in its own twisted way. Hodder’s writing was plausible enough to even make me feel pity for person responsible for the acts. Whilst I did get the impression that the story became convoluted and it dissolved into dramatic fantasy near the end, the overall experience of the novel was so enjoyable that the next book in the Burton and Swinburne series is on my eventual wish list. If you’re into mystery slightly more than crime, as well a clash between science-fiction and history, then I’d recommend.

Published in 2010 by Snowbooks Ltd, Reprinted 2017
Written by Mark Hodder and Illustrated by Kate Hiscock

ISBN: 978-1-906727-20-8