The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I am a big fan of literature written in or set in the Victorian era. Even so I often wonder what exactly it is that appeals so much to modern readers (myself included) about this time period. Maybe it’s that such a lot of English literature that we read at schools, colleges and universities comes from the 19th Century. Or maybe it’s a TV thing: period dramas seem to have an enduring appeal to viewers, which spills over into our reading habits.

The Essex Serpent, set in the late 19th Century,¬†tells the story of widow Cora who travels into Essex in search of scientific discoveries. She soon hears the tale of the Essex Serpent, a mysterious creature that stalks the village of Aldwinter. It was last ‘seen’ in the 17th Century, but a rising tide of hysteria seems to be gripping the villagers. Cora views this as a scientific adventure and hopes to be able to bring a newly discovered species to London to display. In this she disagrees with William Ransome, the local vicar who is filled with faith, yet also entirely rational when it comes to the presence of the serpent. They are drawn together into a friendship and mutual affection, which threatens to develop into something more.

This story is so beautifully told, with amazing descriptions of natural landscapes, but also a focus on historical detail from a time period where the world was under-going rapid change and discovery. The relationship between Will and Cora is subtle and entirely believable, but also the focus on medicine, science and socialism draws the reader into a much broader world than that of just two characters. In fact we follow several different characters from a variety of backgrounds, all trying to find their place in a world that is changing around them at a rapid pace.

A well-told, intelligent work of historical fiction that I would most definitely recommend.

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I See You by Clare Mackintosh

Psychological thrillers have been really popular lately, and with books like I See You it’s easy to understand why so many people are reading them. They’re full of twists and turns, lots of drama, but also contain complex heroes and villains.

The story of I See You begins with Zoe Walker, who on her regular commute from work spots her picture in the classified ads, amongst a range of adverts for chat lines and escort agencies. It contains no information: only a phone number and a website, neither of which are accessible when she tries them. Zoe’s family convince her it can’t possibly be her, and the next day it’s another woman’s face, then another’s. Her worries escalate when one of the women advertised is murdered, and another is a victim of theft, and Zoe becomes determined to discover the truth behind the mysterious adverts.

This is a very tense thriller, dramatic but also highly creepy. The characters are well developed and you really find yourself drawn into the plot of this novel. There are lots of twists and turns, and the reader is kept on their toes from beginning to end. One to read in a couple of sittings, the only problem is that once you start reading, you won’t want to stop!

‘The Lie Tree’ – well deserved award winner

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Faith’s family move to the island of Vane, where her father’s unusually secretive pursuit of natural science lead to his death in highly suspicious circumstances. In order to discover the truth, Faith places her trust in the Lie Tree, feeding it with a growing range of dangerous untruths. She soon discovers that both lies and truth contain hidden dangers for everyone…

The Lie Tree is a brilliant story: a supernatural historical adventure would probably be the best way to describe it. I enjoyed it from the first to the last page and am now keen to read some of Hardinge’s other stories. I completely forgot that this was written for young adults; it’s a plot that is engaging for everyone.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that the story had a strong female protagonist; Faith rebels against all the rules that society sets into place for her, and makes her own decisions.

I’d highly recommend this book. It’s well written, exciting and thought – provoking from cover to cover!

The Middle of Nowhere

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In my last blog post, I explained that I often feel like I am not the intended reader when it comes to children’s books, and that I can feel like they don’t really speak to me. However, every once in a while I pick up a children’s book and am able to forget that it is written for children; the characters and events draw you in so well that you don’t really care who it was written for, you just want to read more. The Middle of Nowhere is one of those rare books.

It is the late 19th Century and Comity Pinny lives in the Australian outback at a telegraph station run by her father. After Comity’s mother dies a chain of events unfold in which her understanding of how the world works and how people fit together is challenged. The sinister Quartz Hogg arrives at Kinkindele bringing danger to all there, but it is Comity’s own lies that could cause deadly consequences.

I really loved this story: the main characters of Comity and Fred are likeable and the story was well paced. Quartz Hogg showed that villains come from the most unexpected of places and the ending where the ‘noxious’ Blighs are finally introduced to the country that they inhabit yet barely understand is wonderful.

I highly recommend this book, and not just for children.

The mad woman in the attic…

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Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books: I love how Jane speaks out for herself in a world that tries to deny her a voice; I love the flawed hero Mr Rochester, even though I shouldn’t; and perhaps most of all, I love the mad woman in the attic, Bertha Mason, the representation of the madness hiding beneath the surface of the repressed Victorian woman.

Surprisingly though, I have never read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys before. It is one of those books that has always been on my ‘to read’ list, yet I’ve never gotten around to. Until now anyway.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre, set in Jamaica, telling the story of how Antoinette Mason became the first Mrs Rochester and how she was driven to madness by her husband.

Rochester’s selfishness is apparent in Jane Eyre and in this story Rhys goes one step further: he is possessive, refusing to let go of his wife when she wants to leave; he becomes obsessed over her race and background, struggling to come to terms with her sensuality.

The style is very different to Jane Eyre, but that in itself helps to bring to life the ‘otherness’ of Antionette,  the very thing that her husband struggles to come to terms with. I always find alternative viewpoint narratives fascinating and this was no different: the tale of the mad woman becomes very different when seen from her point of view. A controlling, cheating husband who drags you half-way across the world only to lock you up… maybe the madness is not so surprising after all.

A fascinating, brilliantly written story and an absolute must for Jane Eyre fans.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – illustrated edition

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I first read the Harry Potter series (well the first 4 anyway, as the rest hadn’t been published at the time) in the summer after I finished my A levels. I couldn’t drive and my workplace was 2 inconveniently timed bus journeys away – plenty of reading time while sat at bus stops. I enjoyed them right away and probably caught on to the Harry Potter craze at about the same time as a lot of other people.

For anyone who may not be aware of the plot, Harry Potter is a wizard, and not just any wizard. He survived a killing curse as a baby, defeating evil wizard Voldemort in the process. He has no idea of this, having been brought up by his non-magical  (Muggle) Aunt and Uncle, until his 11th birthday, when he receives a letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He makes new friends, learns to use magic and discovers that Voldemort may not be quite so dead and gone as everyone believes.

When I first saw that there was a new illustrated edition of the book (and I believe the whole series is to be published as illustrated novels over the next few years) I was dubious as to whether it was worth buying a book I already own just for a few pictures – would it really be worth it?

In the end, I saw a few of the images online and decided to give it a go and I am so glad I did. I still love the story and having this copy of the book gave me a good excuse to re-read it. And the illustrations, well, they are amazing. There are a real mixture: small pictures of specific objects; large portraits of specific characters; images taken from textbooks mentioned in the story; landscapes; alongside more traditional illustrations of events within the story. They add a richness to the text and have a really magical feel, developing an effective sense of atmosphere. It’s hard to pick a favourite but at a push I might go with the images of Diagon Alley – the topsy-turvey magical street where all kinds of wizarding products can be found – the sheer level of detail in the picture makes it one that I spent a good deal of time looking through, picking out the various references to the book.

Liane Moriarty – ‘Big Little Lies’

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I came to this book via a twitter conversation about how much I hate the term ‘play date’ (on a side note, I really hate it!). It’s a term that comes up in ‘Big Little Lies’ and this is the focus of the novel: the big impact of those ‘little’ lies in a world of mums, playground politics and (I shudder as I write this) play dates.

‘Big Little Lies’ tells the story of three women in the suburban Sydney town of Pirriwee and how the little lies that affect their individual lives end in murder. Madeline is a gossip, who has to come to terms with her ex – husband suddenly taking an interest in their teenage daughter’s life after abandoning them when she was a baby. Celeste is rich and beautiful and shares her gorgeous home with her husband and their twin boys – she has the perfect life, so why is she always so withdrawn? Jane is a young single mother with a son who is the result of a one – night – stand with a stranger. She knows very little about her son’s father but what she does know worries her, especially when she thinks her son may have inherited some of her father’s traits.

On the kindergarten orientation day at Pirriwee Public School there is an incident of bullying that sets into place a chain of events that affect the playground dynamics and ultimately end in a disastrous event at the school trivia night.

Moriarty builds tension from the very start, drawing the reader in with snippets of interviews after the trivia night, interspersed with the story told from the beginning. It is a real page – turner and just like in ‘The Husband’s Secret’, Moriarty manages to show the drama that can be hidden within lives that seem boring, unimportant or even perfect. The playground politics seem slightly exaggerated at times but are all too believable – the cliques, the petitions, the ‘blonde bobs’ who seem to run everything – anyone who has ever stood in a primary school playground on the school run can recognise at least elements of truth in this.

Ultimately though, whilst the story is entertaining and fun to read, it has a serious message too, about the very real nature of domestic violence. The novel ends with the words “This can happen to anyone”. Just because people’s lives appear to be perfect does not mean they are not suffering.

This book is a real must – read: a summer page – turner which also has a more serious side too. What more could you want?