Posts Tagged ‘The Essex Serpent’

Read any good books lately? Of course you have. Me too, and you know which ones if you’ve been reading this blog. But that hasn’t stopped me from reading others’ year-end lists to see where we overlap or disagree or what I should add to my TBR.

This holiday, as usual, I’m wrapping up books as gifts for friends and family. My top pick this year is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which is as gorgeous inside as out, a sweeping Victorian tale with Gothic shadings. Then there’s Moshin Hamid’s Exit West, an imaginative, moving novel of love, war and refugees: “We are all migrants in time.” Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin is the darkly funny story of a young woman trying to make sense of her life at the same time that her brilliant father is losing his mind and memories. John le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies echoes with old lies and loves as George Smiley’s protege Peter Guillam revisits the long-ago case that was the centerpiece of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

In crime fiction, Anthony Horowitz’s clever Magpie Murders pays homage to the cozy Golden Age detective story and the cutthroat world of contemporary publishing. In Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke explores race and justice when a black Texas Ranger becomes involved in two murders in East Texas. Michael Connelly jump-starts a new series with The Late Show, and Sleep No More collects six short stories by the late P.D. James. Australian writer Jane Harper made her debut last winter with the thrilling The Dry, and follows up with Force of Nature this coming February.

I read nonfiction mostly in newspapers and magazines, which then leads me to good books such as David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. I also can recommend Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land.  Up next for me is Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries, which came out a few weeks ago and which a good friend has put under my Christmas tree.

Then there are the several books I’ve read recently but haven’t had time to write about.  Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak (Penguin, digital) follows a dysfunctional British family with two grown daughters and plenty of secrets quarantined over Christmas because one of them has been exposed to an Ebola-like virus. The plot stretches credibility, but the characters are appealing and the ending was unexpectedly moving. Jane Austen fans will appreciate Katherine Reay’s clever The Austen Escape (Thomas Nelson, digital galley), in which Austin, Texas engineer Mary joins estranged friend Isabel on a holiday to Bath, England. There they stay at a manor house and dress up in Regency clothing with other Austen fans, and all is well and good until Isabel has a mental lapse and thinks she really is a Jane Austen character. Finally, the new Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery, Bryant and May: Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley) finds the two aging, eccentric police detectives tracking a possible serial killer knocking off victims in London parks. Lots of funny business, witty writing and a killer ending.

Happy holidays, everyone. May your days be merry and bright with many, many books.


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I’m on summer vacation, and it’s lovely, with family weddings, old friends, South Carolina peaches, and books, books, books.

Oh, The Essex Serpent (HarperCollins, digital galley). I first was captivated by the stunning cover with its intricate William Morris-inspired design, then seduced by the contents. Sarah Perry’s sweeping Victorian tale with its Gothic shadings reminded me of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman by way of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Angels and Insects. Also Bronte, Hardy, Dickens, Stoker. And yet this novel of ideas, of science and superstition, love and friendship, is also imaginative and original.

In 1893 London, Cora Seaborne makes for an unconventional 19th-century heroine, a well-off widow whose independent spirit and intellectual curiosity were suppressed by an abusive older husband. Now she gleefully exchanges widow’s weeds for a man’s tweed coat and boots, the better for tramping the marshy Essex coast in search of fossils. She’s also intrigued by rumors of the return of the Essex Serpent, a mythical winged beast that villagers blame for recent drownings, missing livestock and ruined crops. Cora dreams of discovering a lost species, some kind of dinosaur, but the local vicar, William Ransome, dismisses the serpent as pure superstition and sermonizes against it. The two strike up a passionate friendship despite their differences and Ransome’s devotion to his consumptive wife and three children. Perry excels in evoking the wonders of the natural world, and breathes life in all of her characters, from a cantankerous codger to a brilliant surgeon to Cora’s autistic son and his socialist nanny. It is the latter who wisely states, “There are no ordinary lives.” Oh, what an extraordinary book!

At one point in Gail Godwin’s pensive new novel Grief Cottage (Bloomsbury, digital galley), 11-year-old Marcus sees a boy his own age coming toward him. He is startled that the sturdy, suntanned youth is his own mirrored reflection, and no wonder. He is no longer the pale, bookish orphan sent to stay with his great-aunt on a South Carolina island after his mother’s sudden death. Not that Marcus isn’t still haunted by grief and loss, and also, perhaps, by the ghost of a boy who disappeared during a hurricane 50 years ago. Marcus senses his presence in the ruin of Grief Cottage, which has been immortalized in Aunt Charlotte’s atmospheric paintings. She is laconic, solitary, prickly and drinks to ward off her own demons, and she seems an unlikely guardian for a growing boy. But the two come to depend on one another, especially after an accident turns Charlotte into a temporary invalid unable to paint. Marcus is also befriended by an island old-timer who restores antique cars, the head of the local sea-turtle watch, and the wealthy widow next-door mourning the loss of her grown son.

Although set in the early years of this century, Grief Cottage glints with nostalgia for lost people and times. Part of it is the past-haunted Lowcountry setting; Godwin borrows from Pawley’s Island and Isle of Palms to create her own island, where the shifting sands thwart developers. Part of it, too, is an undercurrent of mystery. Who is Marcus’s father? Why did Aunt Charlotte leave home long ago? What happened to Grief Cottage’s inhabitants when Hurricane Hazel howled ashore? Such questions animate this haunting summer story.


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