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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Plague Land

Plague Land (Somershill Manor Mystery, #1)Plague Land by S.D. Sykes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Setting: England, Kent, Somershill (fictional manor and rural village)
Time: 1350, two years after the plague has ravaged the country killing half the population.

Chapter One: “It was a hot summer’s morning in June of this year when I first saw them – advancing towards Somershill like a band of ragged players. I would tell you they were a mob, except their numbers were so depleted that a gaggle would be a better description. And I would tell you I knew their purpose in coming here, but I had taken to hiding in the manor house and keeping my nose in a book. At their head was John of Cornwall, a humourless clenched-fist of a man, whose recent appointment to parish priest rested purely upon his still being alive.”

Criticized for being too modern in tone, it was a style that worked for me. It gave a breezy, humorous counterbalance to the dark and macabre time period. Oswald is an anomaly in his time – an atheist and rational thinker with a tendency towards what today would be Zen Buddhism. As the author pointed out in a historical note “there is evidence of unbelief from those times – though it is difficult to gauge the true extent of this, as you were likely to have kept any scepticism to yourself. But even if doubts were rare, impiety certainly was not.” It worked for me, and I think actually makes the Middle Ages perhaps a little more accessible to modern readers. The historical details were otherwise spot on, with all the filth, superstition, and brutality. The black humor and over-the-top characters made me think of a television sit-com. I think it would translate very well to film or television. The mystery was satisfying, even if Oswald seems a bit slow at times, with a nice twist at the end. I definitely look forward to more in the series.

Reread, 2018, audiobook narrated by Shaun Grindell.

Book description: Oswald de Lacy was never meant to be the Lord of Somershill Manor. Despatched to a monastery at the age of seven, sent back at seventeen when his father and two older brothers are killed by the Plague, Oswald has no experience of running an estate. He finds the years of pestilence and neglect have changed the old place dramatically, not to mention the attitude of the surviving peasants. Yet some things never change. Oswald’s mother remains the powerful matriarch of the family, and his sister Clemence simmers in the background, dangerous and unmarried. Before he can do anything, Oswald is confronted by the shocking death of a young woman, Alison Starvecrow. The ambitious village priest claims that Alison was killed by a band of demonic dog-headed men. Oswald is certain this is nonsense, but proving it—by finding the real murderer—is quite a different matter. Every step he takes seems to lead Oswald deeper into a dark maze of political intrigue, family secrets and violent strife.

The Wine of Angels

The Wine of Angels (Merrily Watkins, #1)The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have FINALLY finished this book! Started it a couple years ago, borrowed from the library the next county over. It’s a chunkster and I had to return it because of holds. So then I bought the ebook and started over, and made it more than halfway before I got bogged down with other things I had to read, and just never seemed to pick it up again. However, I liked it. I like it a lot – the setting, the characters, all the threads of the mystery, with some paranormal events, the themes of good vs. evil, religion vs. pagan beliefs and folk customs, a woman vicar (okay – “priest in charge”), a teenage daughter with WAY too much freedom – let’s just say she doesn’t lead a sheltered life!

I knew if I wanted to finish this book, I would have to get it on audio. Well, the library didn’t have it. Interlibrary loan didn’t have it. So I took the plunge and decided to join Audible. Will it be worth the $15 a month? Well, I already bought the sequel and looking forward to it. I just don’t read the way I did when I was young. And I drive. A lot. So yay for audiobooks! The narrator was very good.

Oh yes, I should also say, this takes place in Herefordshire on the Welsh border. I have ancestors from there (Wales and Herefordshire…) The author is from that area and knows his “people.” The book is very atmospheric of both the place and the people. Loved it! Took off a star, because I like to give a series room to grow, and because I got bogged down in the length and the exposition in the print version. The tension really ratcheted up at the end and almost became a thriller. Then the ending… seemed anti-climactic. But I will definitely go on with the series. I need to learn how Merrily becomes an exorcist in the next book….

Description: The new vicar had never wanted a picture-postcard parish—or a huge and haunted vicarage. Nor had she wanted to walk into a dispute over a controversial play about a 17th-century clergyman accused of witchcraft, a story that certain long-established families would rather remained obscure. But this is Ledwardine, steeped in cider and secrets. A paradise of cobbled streets and timber-framed houses. And also—as Merrily Watkins and her teenage daughter, Jane, discover—a village where horrific murder is a tradition that spans centuries.

Narrated by Rebecca Lacey.

 

The Frozen Thames

The Frozen ThamesThe Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A beautiful and intriguing little book. I gave it four stars instead of 5 because it is more of a snack than a full-course meal. Each story is 3-4 pages long, fiction, but mostly based on documented events. I would have loved more historical and scientific background as a companion to each vignette. But as it is, it makes a nice meditative read on a cold night. I especially loved the story about the boy who thawed frozen birds, still alive, that had fallen from the sky covered in ice, and the story of the family that had taken two robin redbreasts into their home to shelter for the winter.

Source: Library book.

Description: In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river. Contains forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the historic Thames froze solid, spanning more than seven centuries—from 1142 to 1895—and illustrated with stunning full-color period art. Whether we’re viewing the magnificent spectacle of King Henry VIII riding across the ice highway (while plotting to rid himself of his second wife) or participating in a joyous Frost Fair on the ice, joining lovers meeting on the frozen river during the plague years or coming upon the sight of a massive ship frozen into the Thames…these unforgettable stories are a triumph of the imagination as well as a moving meditation on love, loss, and the transformative powers of nature.

The Witch’s Daughter

The Witch's Daughter (The Witch's Daughter, #1)The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I ended up liking this, but it took me forever to get it read. Almost two months… If you can suspend belief and go with it as a fantasy novel, it’ll be fine. My problem is, I wanted it to be more of a historical novel with supernatural elements. It didn’t work that way for me. I don’t like historical made-up witchcraft depicted as modern-day Wicca. It just never rings true as “historical.” But take it as a fantasy, as a world unto itself, and then you have a pretty good story of good versus evil. I might even read the sequel, which is actually #4 in the series, I think.

Book description: In the spring of 1628, the Witchfinder of Wessex finds himself a true Witch. As Bess Hawksmith watches her mother swing from the Hanging Tree she knows that only one man can save her from the same fate: the Warlock Gideon Masters. Secluded at his cottage, Gideon instructs Bess, awakening formidable powers she didn’t know she had. She couldn’t have foreseen that even now, centuries later, he would be hunting her across time, determined to claim payment for saving her life. In present-day England, Elizabeth has built a quiet life. She has spent the centuries in solitude, moving from place to place, surviving plagues, wars, and the heartbreak that comes with immortality. Her loneliness comes to an abrupt end when she is befriended by a teenage girl called Tegan. Against her better judgment, Elizabeth opens her heart to Tegan and begins teaching her the ways of the Hedge Witch. But will she be able to stand against Gideon―who will stop at nothing to reclaim her soul―in order to protect the girl who has become the daughter she never had?

 

Career of Evil

Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike, #3)Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this was the best of the series so far. I love the relationship between Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. This book gives us a chance to learn more about the back stories of both. They are complex and interesting characters and that is a big draw for me. On the other hand, the secondary characters – Robin’s fiancé Matthew and Cormoran’s girlfriend Ellen – suffer by comparison and one fails to see the attraction. The level of violence in this series could be off-putting to some, but it didn’t bother me as much in this one as the previous two. The mystery of solving the identity of the serial-killer takes a back-seat to the relationship between our protagonists. Though slow in the action department, it kept me guessing. Where do the characters go from here? We’ll have to wait for the next book to find out.

Book description: When a mysterious package is delivered to Robin Ellacott, she is horrified to discover that it contains a woman’s severed leg. Her boss, private detective Cormoran Strike, is less surprised but no less alarmed. There are four people from his past who he thinks could be responsible–and Strike knows that any one of them is capable of sustained and unspeakable brutality. With the police focusing on one of the suspects, Strike and Robin delve into the dark and twisted worlds of the other three men. But as more horrendous acts occur, time is running out for the two of them…

Foundation

Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors (The History of England, #1)Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors by Peter Ackroyd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Intended for a popular audience, not an academic one. There are no maps, no genealogical tables, and no footnotes. The style is breezy and narrative, ranging back and forth from kings and politics to the common people. Lots of digressions on various topics like architecture, games and sports, the development of bronze, the practice of medicine, etc. This covers prehistory up to the Tudors, so there is a clear sense of the development of various institutions over time. In his “conclusion” the author emphasizes his decision that this focuses on England only, leaving Wales, Scotland and Ireland for other historians. Though we do get a brief page on Owen Glendower. This isn’t the best historical overview I’ve read, but I enjoyed it, and 4 stars means I’ll likely read more in the series. If I have a complaint, it is that it tries to cover too much. I would have preferred a separate volume on the Plantagenets, which would have allowed a little more detail.

Book description: In Foundation, acclaimed historian Peter Ackroyd tells the epic story of England itself. He takes us from the primeval forests of England’s prehistory to the death, in 1509, of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. He guides us from the building of Stonehenge to the founding of the two great glories of medieval England: common law and the cathedrals. He describes the successive waves of invaders who made England English, despite being themselves Roman, Viking, Saxon, or Norman French. With his extraordinary skill for evoking time and place and his acute eye for the telling detail, Ackroyd recounts the story of warring kings, of civil strife, and foreign wars. But he also gives us a vivid sense of how England’s early people lived: the homes they built, the clothes they wore, the food they ate, even the jokes they told. All are brought to life in this history of England through the narrative mastery of one of Britain’s finest writers.