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.

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Caroline: Little House, Revisited

Caroline: Little House, RevisitedCaroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lovely writing, though occasionally overdone and repetitive. It brings back memories of reading the original Little House books and watching the TV show which aired when I was in college. My quibbles are minor – it was difficult for me to see this Caroline as anyone other than Karen Grassle, meek and mild and never ever getting angry. She seemed far too good to be true. It was stated that Laura and Mary were 3 and 5, but I’ve been around enough 3 year olds to know that they are not this verbal and articulate. They seemed more like 5 and 7. The first half of the book reminded me strongly of the Little House books with many of the same events I remembered, and I wondered if there wasn’t going to be more of the “real” Caroline. The second half was better in that regard, and the author’s note at the end was helpful. This book could stand alone without any knowledge of the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It might even be better without having that reference point.

Audiobook narrated by Elizabeth Marvel.

Book description: In this novel authorized by Little House Heritage Trust, Sarah Miller vividly recreates the beauty, hardship, and joys of the frontier in a dazzling work of historical fiction, a captivating story that illuminates one courageous, resilient, and loving pioneer woman as never before–Caroline Ingalls, “Ma” in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House books. In the frigid days of February, 1870, Caroline Ingalls and her family leave the familiar comforts of the Big Woods of Wisconsin and the warm bosom of her family, for a new life in Kansas Indian Territory. Packing what they can carry in their wagon, Caroline, her husband Charles, and their little girls, Mary and Laura, head west to settle in a beautiful, unpredictable land full of promise and peril.

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating and true story told in alternating voices. Well researched and the author made only minor historical adjustments to tell her story. Sarah’s stammer got a little tedious in the audio version. That was an addition by the author, and I’m not really sure what the purpose of it was, except to reinforce the idea that Sarah was also “enslaved,” in a way, by a culture that profited from slavery and did not support the advancement of women. The first half of the book rambled and went on a bit too long. The second half was riveting, but the ending left things up in the air. Perhaps there is more to be told that could become a sequel. Certainly we are still a nation shaped by slavery, and we have still not achieved a world without racism and sexism. If nothing else, our current “President” has shown us just how far we still have to go.

Book description: Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women. On Sarah’s eleventh birthday, she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

News of the World

News of the WorldNews of the World by Paulette Jiles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Short and sweet. The ending is never really in doubt – the story is about how they get there. After all the build up, I thought the ending could have been drawn out a bit more. Perhaps I just wanted the book to be longer. The relationship between the elderly widower and the child who will never truly fit in the white world is delightful. Somewhat unwilling to take on the task at first, he discovers that he needs her as much as she needs him.

Book description: It is 1870 and Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through northern Texas, giving live readings to paying audiences hungry for news of the world. In Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan to her relatives in San Antonio. Four years earlier, a band of Kiowa raiders killed Johanna’s parents and sister; sparing the little girl, they raised her as one of their own. Recently rescued by the U.S. army, the ten-year-old has once again been torn away from the only home she knows. Their 400-mile journey south through unsettled territory and unforgiving terrain proves difficult and at times dangerous. Yet as the miles pass, the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other, forging a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land. Arriving in San Antonio, the reunion is neither happy nor welcome. The captain must hand Johanna over to an aunt and uncle she does not remember—strangers who regard her as an unwanted burden. A respectable man, Captain Kidd is faced with a terrible choice: abandon the girl to her fate or become—in the eyes of the law—a kidnapper himself.

The Winter Witch

The Winter WitchThe Winter Witch by Paula Brackston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a sucker for pretty much anything set in Wales, good or bad, but this book turned out to be a loving tribute to the landscape. The author has a lyrical way with words, and was able to create a strong sense of time and place, helped by the use of Welsh language words throughout. Morgana was an interesting character, and without the imposition of magic and witchcraft this could have been a 5-star historical romance. While I enjoy a good paranormal or fantasy story, I struggled a bit with it here. I wanted to be immersed in historical Wales, so every time magic was introduced it just didn’t seem quite right to me. I had a few historical quibbles – the use of the famous song Calon Lan, for example, which wasn’t written until 1890 probably at the earliest. It was interesting to learn something about Welsh cattle droving which died out in Wales after the introduction of railroads in the 1840s and 50s. Aside from the language (no glossary provided, which wasn’t an issue for me, but those who don’t know some basic Welsh might wish it had one), other elements of “Welshness” seemed contrived – let’s throw in some references to Welsh cakes and bara brith and carving love spoons. And corgis, of course. The author does live in Wales, and obviously loves her country. Despite my nit-picking here, I enjoyed the book enough to give it four stars. It’s a sweet love story, a tribute to Wales (especially the language and the landscape), and the triumph of good over evil.

Book Description: In her small early-nineteenth-century Welsh town, there is no one quite like Morgana, who has not spoken since she was a young girl. Her silence is a mystery, as well as her magic. Concerned for her safety, her mother is anxious to see her married, and Cai Jenkins, a widower from the far hills, seems the best choice. After her wedding, Morgana is heartbroken at leaving her mother, and wary of this man, whom she does not know, and who will take her away to begin a new life. But she soon falls in love with Cai’s farm and the wild mountains that surround it. Cai works to understand the beautiful half-tamed creature he has chosen for a bride, and slowly, he begins to win Morgana’s affections. It’s not long, however, before her strangeness begins to be remarked upon in her new village. A dark force is at work there — a person who will stop at nothing to turn the townspeople against Morgana. Forced to defend her home, her man, and herself, Morgana must learn to harness her power, or she will lose everything. (from book jacket)

About the author: Paula Brackston lives in a wild, mountainous part of Wales. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University, and is a Visiting Lecturer for the University of Wales, Newport. Before becoming a writer, Paula tried her hand at various career paths, with mixed success. These included working as a groom on a racing yard, as a travel agent, a secretary, an English teacher, and a goat herd. Everyone involved (particularly the goats) is very relieved that she has now found a job she is actually able to do properly. (from author’s website)

Longbourn

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have undoubtedly over-rated this, but I had so few 5-star reads last year, I am trying to even out my 3, 4, and 5 star reviews. So anything even slightly over 4 will be rated a 5 – for now. Obviously I have mixed feelings about that! This book does not try to retell the story of Pride and Prejudice, but it does serve as the framework for a story of the servants at Longbourn. The lives of the Bennets take a definite backseat here, with a lot of gaps. This is its own story. Jo Baker has taken some liberties with their back stories, which might raise some eyebrows, but to say more would be spoilers. I liked the framework. I liked the different point of view of the servants. But I thought the love story between Sarah and James was a bit weak. It sort of lost continuity in the last third of the book – perhaps a few chapters from James’ point-of-view might have been illuminating. The ending was only so-so for me. But there is a lot to enjoy along the way, especially in the day-to-day lives of the servants and their thoughts and feelings. Definitely a book that I could see myself re-reading some day, perhaps alongside P&P and Pride and Prejudice: The Scenes Jane Austen Never Wrote.

Book Description: In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.

The Anatomist’s Wife

The Anatomist's Wife (Lady Darby, #1)The Anatomist’s Wife by Anna Lee Huber

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a period romance wrapped up as an okay country-house-type murder mystery, and the background of Lady Darby is intriguing. The author does work in some interesting historical details (Burke and Hare, jigsaw puzzles), but the setting in the Scottish highlands, near Inverness, just doesn’t work. I couldn’t figure out the social background of these people, and what they were doing in Scotland. There was nothing Scottish about any of it, certainly none of the names given to the characters. Kiera is decidedly a late 20th-century Irish name, Alana and Greer are also 20th-century names. There are other anachronisms (summer squash soup?, raccoons in 19th-century Scotland?, comparisons of eyebrows to cotton blooming?) and the dialog is far too modern. On the whole, I found the characters to be very flat — even the future love interest, Mr. Gage. The romance angle is very cliche. Maybe it is a notch above the usual Harlequin’s judging by the number of 4 and 5-star reviews on Amazon, but I prefer more realistic meat to my historical reading. I read this for my “Wife books” challenge, and I won’t be reading any more of the series.

Book Description: Scotland, 1830. Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister’s estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when her hosts throw a house party for the cream of London society, Kiera is unable to hide from the ire of those who believe her to be as unnatural as her husband, an anatomist who used her artistic talents to suit his own macabre purposes. Kiera wants to put her past aside, but when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to utilize her knowledge of human anatomy to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage–a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn’t about to let her guard down as accusations and rumors swirl. When Kiera and Gage’s search leads them to even more gruesome discoveries, a series of disturbing notes urges Lady Darby to give up the inquiry. But Kiera is determined to both protect her family and prove her innocence, even as she risks becoming the next victim…