The Essex Serpent

The Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Part mystery, part romance, part psychological sort-of gothic, this is a historical novel with a strong and compelling female main character. Literate and atmospheric, I enjoyed this very much. It is a study in contrasts: science vs. religion/superstition, feminism vs. the typical Victorian view of women, illusion/ambiguity/chaos vs. order, city vs. rural, poverty vs. wealth, etc. The themes are timeless, the relationships (like real life) can’t always be black and white. And the serpent has so many possible interpretations: the Biblical serpent of Adam and Eve, the serpent of Asclepias, the serpent can represent temptation and the devil, and it can also be a symbol of rebirth and renewal. It is tempting to say the serpent represents the Kundalini, vital energy that seeks to balance the masculine and feminine within us, intellect and emotion, and our conscious vs. unconscious selves. This is a rich and multilayered story that invites rereading.

Description: When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend. While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief. These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.

Advertisements

The Tiger’s Wife

The Tiger's WifeThe Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved the writing and the stories. The animals and people she writes about all come to life – the elephant, the tiger, the dancing bear. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with The Life of Pi, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and, of course, The Jungle Book, which her grandfather treasured. We learn something of his life through the folk tales he relates to his granddaughter. She, herself, because of her ethnicity, is not entirely welcome in her own country. The tales that are related here are all about outcasts – the “tiger’s wife”: a deaf-mute girl who forms a bond with a tiger escaped from a zoo, Gavran Gaile the “deathless man”, Dariša a violent and closeted homosexual who turns to taxidermi. All of them are just trying to survive. It is sometimes a rather dark story. With its multiple themes, interwoven stories, and magical realism there is much to ponder here.

Description: In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself. But Natalia is also confronting a private, hurtful mystery of her own: the inexplicable circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. After telling her grandmother that he was on his way to meet Natalia, he instead set off for a ramshackle settlement none of their family had ever heard of and died there alone. A famed physician, her grandfather must have known that he was too ill to travel. Why he left home becomes a riddle Natalia is compelled to unravel.

Grief struck and searching for clues to her grandfather’s final state of mind, she turns to the stories he told her when she was a child. On their weeklytrips to the zoo he would read to her from a worn copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which he carried with him everywhere; later, he told her stories of his own encounters over many years with “the deathless man,” a vagabond who claimed to be immortal and appeared never to age. But the most extraordinary story of all is the one her grandfather never told her, the one Natalia must discover for herself. One winter during the Second World War, his childhood village was snowbound, cut off even from the encroaching German invaders but haunted by another, fierce presence: a tiger who comes ever closer under cover of darkness. “These stories,” Natalia comes to understand, “run like secret rivers through all the other stories” of her grandfather’s life. And it is ultimately within these rich, luminous narratives that she will find the answer she is looking for.

The Tea Dragon Society

The Tea Dragon SocietyThe Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How could I not love this, when it combines dragons and tea and keeping old traditions alive and wonderful artwork? Each “chapter” represents one of the 4 seasons. The artwork in this large picture-book sized hardcover is mostly earth tones with lovely vines and flowers. This is a gentle read for younger readers, perhaps 6-12. It includes 7 pages of “extracts from the Tea Dragon Handbook” giving us facts about tea dragon societies, tea dragons and what they eat and the kinds of flowers and herbs they produce, with drawings and specifics on 8 different tea dragons: Jasmine, Rooibos, Chamomile, Ginseng, Earl Grey, Hibiscus, Ginger, and Peppermint. I can think of at least two that should be added: Lavender and Calendula. The author is an illustrator and graphic novelist from New Zealand. I can see the Maori influence in her characters. There is also a card game based on this book, and I just might have to get it!

Description from School Library Journal: Greta is a young blacksmith apprentice who wonders whether her mother’s craft is still relevant in contemporary society. When she rescues a little lost dragon in the marketplace and returns it to its owners, Greta learns about another fading art form—the care of tea dragons, small creatures who grow tea leaves out of their horns and antlers. She becomes fascinated with the enchanting dragons and their caretakers, and begins to appreciate how traditional crafts can create their own kind of magic by enriching lives, including hers. This book is wonderfully inclusive, and depicts a distinct and expressive cast of LGBTQIA characters and people of color.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1)My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really struggled with this book, and couldn’t wait to be done with it. My two stars is not necessarily an indication of the book’s merit, but reflects that it is not for me. I listened to the audiobook, and while it would have been better to read it and be able to take notes so I could keep track of all the confusing characters, on the other hand I would have abandoned a print book. I finished this only because I’m a captive audience in the car, and it was for my book club, so I give those books extra effort. So the main characters are Lena and Lila, but that wasn’t confusing enough, so Lila is also called Lina. Then there is her brother Rino, and another boy Nino, and you get the idea. Lina, I mean Lila, is not very likeable – she’s rough, aggressive, unconventional – but unquestionably brilliant. Their friendship is very passive aggressive. Lena admires Lila, and is plagued by massive insecurity and believing anything she can do, Lila can do better. But Lila is doomed by her family’s poverty to cut short her education and work in the family shoe business. Nevertheless, she continues to push Lena in her studies, and confides toward the end of the book, that Lena is the brilliant one. But is it friendship or rivalry that drives this relationship? Together, the two girls navigate adolescence, male relationships, family rivalries that sometimes escalate into violence, and try and figure out how to make their dreams come true. Lena continues to pursue education as her path to becoming a successful writer, while Lila settles on marriage to a relatively well-off grocer to provide her the freedom to put her creative energies into the shoe business. There is no closure at the end of the book. The author considers the 4 volumes of this quartet to be one book, but I just don’t have the interest in pursuing 3 more installments.
[Translated from the Italian Ann Goldstein.]
[Audiobook narrated by Hillary Huber.]

Book description: A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila, who represent the story of a nation and the nature of friendship. The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.