Filling my days in Spring.

I decided to hitch a long drive to Chingford plain in Epping Forest …

Hello everyone and happy Monday! I hope everyone has been enjoying the fine weather, not to mention the Royal Wedding (which admittedly I slept through, being on a weekend.) Aside from reading books, I’ve been up to a few things this month…

 

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Days Out—— Since I’ve been stuck at home all week due to illness, I decided to hitch a long drive to Chingford plain, in Epping Forest – which is located on the outskirts of East London. The park is not far from the quaint high street which has a church, an antiquarian bookshop, a small Budgens and a Costa, a charity shop, an art studio, a primary school and a couple of cafes. It is also a mere 2-minute walk along Bury Road from Chingford station, on the Overground line. Up a steep hill, past the grazing cows adjacent to Chingford plain and golf course, is the local Tudor-built hunting lodge; perhaps unsurprisingly named after Queen Elisabeth II. The lodge also has two wooden deer displayed at the front. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to climb the hill this time around, but here is what the hunting lodge looks like. I’ve learnt since that it is open to the public for inside tours – free of charge!

Gardening—- It seems that the month of May is a time when the garden starts to fully reawaken! I’ve been making use of our old plastic egg crates for sowing a selection of poppy seeds before I decide to plant them out next month. If you read my recent post on plant purchasing, you may remember that I brought home a selection of Poppy seeds to experiment with. I recognise that the weather has been pretty changeable too, with some wild winds and showers, and so the mini greenhouse effect of the egg crate will keep the seeds warm and moderately watered.

 

Television & Film—- And finally, across two consecutive evenings, I watched the 2014 film ‘Testament of Youth’ on BBC iPlayer which is based on the published memoirs of Vera Brittain, a young woman who lived through the First World War. In the film, Vera is a young country woman who dreams of attending Oxford University to study English – which she delightedly achieves. However, when WW1 breaks out and her lover Roland Leighton and brother Edward Brittain enlist, her world is flipped on its head. The film stars a plethora of well-known actors, including Kit Harrington, Colin Morgan, Jonathan Bailey and Alicia Vikander. As a lover of history, I found the story incredibly moving and regard it very much to be a coming of age film. I’d definitely recommend a watch, whilst it’s currently on the iPlayer.

In factual television, I’ve been watching ‘Britain’s Most Historic Town’, presented by Professor Alice Roberts on Channel 4. In this series, Professor Roberts visits six historic toImage result for britain's most historic townwns across Britain and Northern Ireland, with each episode focussing on a particular period of British history. Britain is rich with historical secrets and in this series, Professor Roberts meets with local historians in order to find out how historic sites and monuments were shaped and developed by the social forces of their time. My favourite episode so far has been a visit to Tudor Norwich. Other episodes include Roman Chester, Viking York, Norman Winchester, Regency Cheltenham, and Victorian Belfast. And the entire series is currently available online… And just as I finish typing this, here comes the rain.

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‘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

 

 

‘After Me Comes the Flood’ by Sarah Perry.

 

{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

‘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