Captivating twists and turns…

There are quite a few in Sarah Perry’s new novel The Essex Serpent which is being described as Dickens meets Stoker. It is a clever read, refreshing and unexpected and very satisfying.

In 1669, a pamphlet was published in Saffron Waldon. Strange News out of Essex or pamphlet_2The Winged Serpent informed the horrified public that a beast, wettish, serpentish, deathly – and with wings! – was on the prowl in the soggy and mysterious Essex marshlands. The pamphlet was re-printed in the late nineteenth-century by Robert MiIller Christie, when the snakey creature was once more rumoured to be abroad.
Truely. You can see the pages in the Saffron Walden Museum.

Starting her story in 1893, Sarah Perry sends her unusual heroine, her odd child and his socialist-activist nanny off to Essex to chase the beastie, after quickly dispatching her ill husband in the first couple of chapters. Cora is frankly relieved that he is dead (there are enough darkly alluded to sadistic and nasty moments between them that we are quite pleased too), and being a modern woman of enquiring mind, excited by the new ideas of Darwin and the discoveries of fossils on the English coasts, she is determined to see whether the animal is perhaps a living fossil, perhaps an ichthyosaur, or just a folktale frightening benighted marsh-dwelling peasants. There is a brilliant, envelope-pushing surgeon, in thrall to her since he was doctoring her husband and his wealthy doctor friend who fancies the socialist nanny and tries to impress her by crusading against London’s noisome slums. There is a fun member of parliament and his wife who introduce Cora to an Essex vicar and his fairy-like wife, and their charming children, who are all trying to live in a world threatened by both serpents and science.

There is lots of love, perhaps the most touching between the two medical friends, who support each other through thick and thin, a touch of desire and much sparkling playing with ideas and clever talk.The ending is not what you expect yet it is exactly right. Cora is great: charming, intelligent, fierce and real. Her son is unusual and fascinating. I do hope that there is a sequel sometime, I’d really like to see what happens to everyone.
It was lovely to read, it felt quite unusual and special, and it has the most beautiful cover, you can feel the embossed scales under your fingertips as you read…
Essex Serpent



Deep in the forest…

Annie Proulx’s latest novel Barkskins is just wonderful. At 736 pages it is a very satisfying and surprisingly quick read, charting the lives of two families from the 1660s to 2013. One of the reasons it is fast-paced is the brutal reality of life without modern medicines – if you are hurt or sick in the morning, for many of the 400 years this tale spans, you are usually dead by tea-time; and so the story jumps to the next person and place.

Both families begin with two men who leave France to go to work as indentured foresters in the seemingly infinite forests of New France (later Quebec). One has a family with a local indigenous woman, this family continues to live close to the land, working as foresters and fishermen. The other man runs off and taking full advantage of the risks and opportunities that come his way becomes a grand old timber baron, his employees and family cutting their way through huge, unimaginable swathes of new world timber – including the fabled Kauri forests in the far north of New Zealand. Members of the two families orbit one another, sometimes meeting, sometimes passing each other by, all unaware of the common start their patriarchs shared. From this end of the 400 years, the hubris of the squandering of the resource these enormous forests were seems sad and short-sighted, and a little like a warning for our own reckless times. Even thinking of them as a resource, a useful thing, seems wrong in light of the way Proulx evokes their presence as a living kind of a creature, earthbound but vital and full of meaning – their loss is hard to comprehend.

The research underlying the story is sound, Proulx apparently spent years gathering information  and tales about forestry and the lives of the people engaged in it. The descriptions about how to cut down the different trees are fascinating – it was only when I saw the image on the cover (below) that I understood the scale of the trees that they were dealing with, in the previously untouched forests of North America. The writing is beautiful: spare and elegant, dark, mysterious but alive, like a forest…



Bob the Artist is such a cool book. The brilliant Marion Deuchars has done it again: a clever, witty and charming book that’ll enchant not just the 3-year-olds it is aimed at but any adult you give it to as well.
Bob is mostly like his friends but his legs are skinnier than theirs. He is teased about them, and so he tries to change them, by exercising, eating heaps and disguising them:Bob1

Then Bob discovers another amazing part of himself that is different to what his friends look like – one which lets him create art:

And Bob never worries about his differences again.

Dry as bones…

Feeling like a bit of dark crime fiction but slightly over Nordic noir? I have found the DryAntipodean antidote: The Dry by Jane Harper is a really good crime story set in the umpteenth year of Australia’s cruel and unusual drought. The sun is shining all the time, the air is shimmering with heat, the glare hurts your eyes and people are getting fed up. This debut is tightly plotted and compelling, I thought the characters were very believable, and I want to read her next one…

When a young man, the golden boy of his small rural town, breaks and kills his family and himself an already fragile calm is shattered. When the funeral brings a face from the past back to town things and people start to come unstuck as old mysteries are revisited, wounds reopened and secrets revealed.
Harper captures the long-held tensions of life in a small town where everyone pretty much knows everything but no-one speaks about any of it, layered with the merciless drought which threatens lives and livelihoods. The drought hangs over the land and the people like a magnifying glass over ants and the dust covers everything.

So very not Nordic then.


A Game of Thrones…

Have to say, fiction and TV have nothing, nothing, on the Romanov dynasty. Struggling to hold on to their God-given Russian throne this family is as mad as cut snakes – but you know, in a dynastic, glorious, utterly cruel, unusually large way that warrants 784 pages of startling and absorbing history. A little more mad than the usual moments of madness every family has, when a Romanov sibling is jealous or mildly annoyed with another, heads get cut off (after some seriously horrible torture) as opposed to just thumping them and telling on them to Mum. In this family, sometimes Mum holds the axe.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs is a masterly history of the family and Russia. The autocratic family and its storied scions, like Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, ruled Russia and its empire in a stew of murderous ambition, nationalistic over-identification, Gormenghastian-like rituals, clever but sometimes very stupid, political machinations, sycophantic, fanatic and terrified courtiers, and personal charisma – or lack of it – all underpinned by an absolute, unquestioned belief in their God-appointed right and duty to rule and an aristocracy that depended on the crown for land and serfs. Those that gained the throne through political savvy and luck often ended up exibiting seriously questionable mental health by the end of their tenure. Monetefiore identifies the stress of the pretty much impossible role of the tsar with all its absolute power (and we all know what that does to a person) and the fact that the thing that topples tsars is instability and being perceived at capricious. You can be as sadistic and scary as you like but you need to be so consistently. Unfortunately the world changes which requires new thinking and approaches – just what the last of the line, the ill-fated last tsar, Nicholas II, had been bred to avoid.

Montefiore is such a good writer and has amassed a staggering body of research. He revels in all the madness and glory, and shows how the family is Russia. This is just a great read, fascinating, repellent, thoughtful and revealing. It explains a lot about the Russia that has developed since the Romanovs fell. Montefiore invites you to wonder and shudder at the excesses and appreciate just how magnificent the successful (in the sense of waging wars they won, destroying all internal threats, improving Russia’s standing in the world) tsars were. I particularly enjoyed all the Russian names, rolling over you like a tidal wave like they do when reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, sometimes you lose track of who is who and when it is all happening as the names, and many of the nasty deeds, repeat through the centuries and generations.


Classics revisited…

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld is a really good re-visit of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. PPWCUsually I am not keen on such re-tellings – although the odd one is unusual and original enough to work – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is one that springs, like a hungry zombie as it were, PPZto one’s mind. Eligible is not so zeitgesity, pop-culture-moment-seizing but it is still fun, a bit shocking and funny, and feels fresh and clever. The plot is what you already know and love but the modern twists and interesting characters set in Cincinnati work – it’s a good read whether you know P&P, and will enjoy the parallels and echoes or will enjoy shouting about how wrong Sittenfeld has got it, or whether you’ve never read it and don’t care where the inspiration has come from…


… for something slightly more literary the new collection of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre’s powerful and assertive statement “Reader, I married him” is very interesting. I didn’t love every story in Reader, I Married Him edited by Tracy Chevalier but they were all Janeinteresting and well written. There are twenty-one tales, by turns romantic, funny, tragic, bold and shocking. Some of them have ago at re-telling Jane Eyre from other character’s viewpoints, others jump off the celebrated and iconic phrase without a backward glance at, or reference to,  Jane, Rochester, Bertha, the Hall or indeed the eighteenth Widecentury. Only one has a go at telling Bertha’s story, a brave thing to do when Jean Rhys’s brilliant and breathtaking Wide Sargasso Sea – perhaps the very best ever of such sequels – exists. I very much liked the stories that played with Jane a bit, exploring how annoying and goody-two-shoes she might have been, and perhaps even calculating and manipulative – these did feel a bit transgressive and exciting. And, the cover is gorgeous…


Life and death

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer is by Kate Summerscale who wrote the equally fascinating and much-awarded The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House.

Wicked Boy

In this book, Summerscale investigates the true tale of two brothers, Robert Coombes, thirteen and his twelve-year-old brother Nattie, who went on a spending spree in the hot London summer of 1895. They ate out, went to the cricket at Lord’s, and the theater, and pawned various household items. Their father, they said, had gone to sea, their mother had been called away to Liverpool; the boys were looking after themselves. Until an awful smell drifted from their small East End house and the whole creaky edifice of fantasy and lies came down with a thump. Summerscale’s tracing of what happens next is masterly – what she finds is surprising and unexpected. As in Suspicions, there is much that is Whicherunknown about motives but again, there are enough hints about family tensions, sibling loyalties and issues of protection and care to raise some really interesting questions. I like the way Summerscale raises the questions, suggest a possible answer or two but doesn’t try to be definitive or defend a theory, just lets the various versions of the facts (contemporary newspapers and court records providing rich pickings of these) float around with the probable and possible.
Fascinating reading, clever and careful research, clear and elegantly simple writing and a real-life ending that is oddly moving – this is an excellent read.

And I try hard not to talk about books that are not published yet, but can I just say, I finished an advance copy of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (due in June) last night, all 700+ pages of the life, death and times of two families from the late 1600s to 2013, and the timber they love and exploit. It starts with Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, two Frenchmen who go to work the great forests of New France in what becomes Canada. There are stunning passages about the New Zealand Kauri forests and I love the stark and beautiful cover. Her writing is so good, I am slightly jealous you have it ahead of you – do make sure you read it, I bet it will get a trophy case of prizes!