Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

Book review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not your usual love story. Not your usual happy ending.

Cora, recently widowed — and frankly, quite pleased to be free of her marriage — decamps to the Essex countryside with her companion Martha and her son Frances for a change of scenery after her abusive husband is laid to rest. There she meets Will Ransome, the local vicar, and his angelic wife, Stella. Cora and Will immediately take to each other in an intellectual sense, debating matters of biology, naturalism, and faith with vigor and passion; Stella looks on in bemusement and a secret delight that Will has met someone his intellectual equal. Stella is ill, although she hasn’t told anyone; as the novel wears on, one suspects she doesn’t object to Will’s friendship with Cora because she expects Will to turn to Cora after Stella passes on.

In the meantime, Aldwinter (the village) is roiled by the rumor that the Essex Serpent of the title has resurfaced after an absence of some 200 years. Cora is thrilled at the story and believes the Serpent may be a prehistoric creature. Will believes the story is stuff and nonsense but is pleased church attendance is up. Still, he is unsettled by the reason: many in town believe the End Times may be at hand, or at the very least, God is unhappy with the town and is punishing them with this beast. The townsfolk are skittish and superstitious; they keep their children in and their livestock tied, and hold vigil at the edge of the river, watching for any sign of the creature so Aldwinter can be warned and ready.

As the year rolls by, passions rise and fall; quarrels come and go; people leave and return; letters are written and exchanged; the Serpent lurks; death stalks; love awaits; and peace, while elusive, is eventually found.

Lovely writing, lovely story.

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Book review: The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place (Flavia de Luce #9)The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Six months after the death of their father, Flavia de Luce and her sisters, Daphne and Ophelia, are on a summer boating holiday with family retainer Dogger, in a desperate attempt to jolt themselves out of their gloom and come together as a family once again. As luck would have it, and as one has come to expect when 12-year-old Flavia is involved, a body turns up — in this particular instance, it’s snagged by Flavia herself as she trails her hand in the river while they are punting along.

The boating party pulls ashore and Dogger goes off to fetch the local constabulary. While Daffy and Feely stand watch on either side of the soggy corpse, a delighted Flavia begins her investigation. And thus we’re off on another romp through our intrepid sleuth’s thinking process as she sifts clues and calculates advantages and outcomes.

Lots of lovely secondary characters here: I was nearly as enamored with Hob, the undertaker’s son, as Flavia was. He seems to be cut from the same jib as our young heroine: determined, spunky, and with a little larceny in his soul.

Yes, with each book, Flavia becomes a little more devious, I think, in the sense that she recognizes there are certain things the adults mustn’t know or they won’t let her continue with her favorite hobby. She generally wracks herself with brief moments of guilt over these little deceptions, but the ends always seem to justify the means. She’s more than a little frightening, actually. But she’s also starting to grow up here: she’s seeing her sisters in a more forgiving light, which is a good thing since they’re orphaned and have only each other now (leaving aside Aunt Felicity, of course).

Oh, almost forgot. Of course Flavia solves the mystery. Because she wouldn’t be Flavia otherwise.

I look forward to the next installment.

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Book review: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

The Gap of TimeThe Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Never having read A Winter’s Tale, the Shakespeare play on which this novel is based, I waded into The Gap of Time with no preconceived notions. The lack of familiarity wasn’t a hindrance, however; Jeanette Winterson thoughtfully provides a synopsis of the play before the novel begins; even that synopsis is unnecessary unless one is looking for the similarities and parallels. I wasn’t, and so I enjoyed the novel for its own sake.

Briefly, Leo Kaiser suspects his pregnant wife MiMi is cheating on him with his best friend Xeno, and believes that the child she carries is not his own. He mistreats her so badly that she leaves him, but not until he steals her newborn daughter. A series of miscommunications result in the infant being abandoned in a “Baby Hatch” and subsequently adopted and lost to her birth family. Some seventeen years later, circumstances bring unknowing child and unwitting parent together.

I loved young Perdita and Zel; Perdita’s adoptive father Shep is warm and gruff and sweet; Xeno and MiMi are beautiful and tragic…the only character for whom I couldn’t find any redemption was Leo, who is unremittingly awful to the point of caricature throughout the entire novel.

Leo aside, there is some gorgeous writing in this novel. I really should have marked the passages I found particularly lovely. Nicely done, Ms. Winterson.

Thank you to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to read this book.

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Double book review: The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse; Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d

The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse  (Flavia de Luce, #6.5)The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse by Alan Bradley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Flavia de Luce is as charming as ever in this short story.

Young Flavia is hired – hired! – by a student to solve the mystery of the death of a teacher, discovered in a bathtub by that same student, who had recently expressed a desire to see said teacher dead. In fear that he would be accused of murder, he reaches out to the resident underage sleuth in an effort to clear his name before adults and other responsible members of society learn of the recently departed. Flavia sets to her task with her usual gusto, intelligence, and forthrightness.

If you’ve never read any of Flavia’s adventures, this is a good stand-alone place to start. For those of us who’ve been with her since the beginning, it’s lagniappe, a little something extra to tide us over between novels.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd (Flavia de Luce, #8)Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having been, um, invited to disenroll from the exclusive young ladies’ academy in Canada to which she had been sent, Flavia de Luce arrives home in England only to discover her father is gravely ill. Thwarted at every turn in her attempts to visit him in hospital, our intrepid young sleuth runs an errand for the Buckshaw household and, amazingly enough, stumbles over the body of yet another individual who appears to have met a suspicious end. Solving this mystery serves to occupy Flavia’s mind and time while she waits for her opportunity to see her father and reassure him and herself that all is well.

She solves the mystery, of course, but trouble still awaits.

As with all Flavia novels, we are treated to the delightful inner workings of the young lady’s precocious and highly intelligent mind, as well as her perambulations about the countryside on her faithful Gladys, and her frequent (and unaccompanied!) trips to London on the train. (Flavia has bottomless pocket money, it seems, or the family has a running account with the railway.) I suppose that’s my only quibble with this series — Flavia has a massive amount of unsupervised time for a girl of 12. But I also have to remember that this is set in the late 1940s/early 1950s (years actually not closely specified), and children were left to their own devices much more then than they are today. Still, quibble aside, another enjoyable installment in the series.

But Alan Bradley is on my naughty list for the last two pages.

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Posted in Movies and TV

Video review: The Day of the Triffids (BBC mini-series)


This 1981 BBC mini-series wasn’t what I intended to order from Netflix.  I had intended to order the 1962 B-movie starring Howard Keel, which I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager camped out in front of the television watching Bob Wilkins host Creature Features on Saturday afternoons.  So when the single-disc mini-series, comprised of six 26-minute episodes, arrived, I was somewhat puzzled until I looked at our Netflix account and realized “Oh, yeah, the 1962 film isn’t available, that’s why I got this one.” (IMDB indicates there’s yet another version, a two-part mini-series made in 2009, also British.)

No matter.  I watched it anyway, the day after I finished the book.  And the show is a faithful adaptation of its source material, with much of the dialogue coming straight out of the book.  It’s been updated so that it takes place in the early 1980s, so the chauvinism and sexism are somewhat lessened — omigosh, there’s an actual female who speaks from a position of authority — but the basics of the plot are fully intact.  I was fascinated by the depiction of the triffids in this version.  Keep in mind the only triffid I had ever seen on screen was that from the 1962 film — to the best of my recollection, they looked vaguely like walking asparagus with flailing “arms” and a kind of a dandelion-type “head”.  But the 1981 version looked a great deal like a titan arum, also known as a corpse flower.

PerfumeHere’s the titan arum my husband and I visited when it flowered at UC Davis in 2007. It’s huge. And it stinks.  Imagine this plant on a six-foot stalk, with the ability to walk — well, shuffle — and sting and eat carrion flesh.

Absolutely terrifying.

I didn’t make the connection until seeing it on the screen, but that first episode, set in the hospital where Bill Masen awakens to a silent world, vividly reminded me of the first episode of The Walking Dead.  Same eerie quiet, same vacant streets, same desperate effort to find other living human beings and discover what happened.

So, set aside the cheesy early 80s fashion — sheesh, did we really wear our makeup like that? — and the horrendous videotape production quality so common in early 80s TV (on both sides of the Atlantic), and prepare yourself for about two and a half hours of post-apocalyptic fun and games, dodging deadly triffids and ruthless press gangs and militia groups intent on enforcing their version of law and order.

Reviewed for R.I.P XI “Peril on the Screen” Challenge.  Click the badge to find out more about this annual event.

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Book review: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The Day of the TriffidsThe Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bill Masen missed seeing the end of the world by sheer happenstance. He was hospitalized with bandages over his eyes on the night of the spectacular meteor shower that blinded everyone who watched it. Now he’s wandering the streets of London, one of the rare sighted individuals left, trying to avoid the gangs, the looting, the violence, and the triffids.

What are triffids? They’re a strange plant of unknown origin, with a sting of sufficient venom to kill a human being stone dead, and the perplexing ability to walk from place to place. But triffids had proved commercially useful and were cultivated under controlled conditions throughout the world. Bill Masen studied triffids before the meteor shower; he knew them and their habits fairly well, and in fact had begun to suspect they were not merely plants, but far more complex creatures. And now that nearly 100% of humanity was blinded and helpless, triffid containment failed: the plants were on the prowl.

Bill eventually joins forces with Josella, a woman a few years younger than he, and together they make their way through the city in search of a place where they can live safely. Danger and trouble abound; their road to security is neither smooth nor straight.

Some classic science fiction stories age well. Some do not. The Day of the Triffids falls in the latter category, at least in some respects. Reading John Wyndham’s tale through modern eyes means wading through the rampant sexism that permeates much of the story. For example, when our hero first meets Josella, she is described as a girl. It took me several paragraphs to realize the author was talking about a grown woman in her early 20s, not someone who had not yet reached her teenage years. There are no scientists who are women, no female leaders (except one, and she’s a caricature), and no women at all who had careers other than teacher or nurse, secretary or, in Josella’s case, author.

Still, if one can manage to overlook the male chauvinism, or at least accept the novel as a product of its time, the story itself is a rollicking adventure tale, full of frightful moments and feats of daring. Above all, it’s a survival story. One can only hope to fare as well as Bill and Josella and their band of adventurers at the end of the world.

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RIP 9 Peril the SecondThis post is part of R.I.P. XI Peril the Second Challenge. If you’re interested in knowing what that means, clickie the badgie to be whisked away to the blog post that explains it.

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Book review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When we first meet Holly Sykes, it’s the mid-80s and she is a sullen teenager who discovered her boyfriend, with whom she had planned to live after running away from home, cheated on her with her “best mate”. When we last meet her, it’s the 2040s, and she’s trying to figure out a way to save her granddaughter from a living hell. In between is a ramble through the world of late 20th, early 21st Century, peopled with narcissistic, entitled English schoolmates and other people of consequence, some of whom manage to grow up and become decent people, but most of whom don’t. And lurking behind the scenes, manipulating people and events, are creatures with special abilities who snatch people with special abilities out of the world and use them for…nourishment? Entertainment? All of the above. It sounds like a mess, but it’s glorious and frightening and altogether wonderful.

The Bone Clocks is my second David Mitchell novel. Cloud Atlas was the first. Often when I read a second novel by a new-to-me author, I’m disappointed because it doesn’t match up to the excellence of the first novel I read. Not so in this case. The Bone Clocks is every bit as magical as Cloud Atlas. I’ll definitely be getting more David Mitchell from the library.

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Book review: Saturday by Ian McEwan

SaturdaySaturday by Ian McEwan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ulysses for those who can’t be bothered to struggle with Joycean prose.

My goodness, how this novel dragged through the minutiae of Dr. Perowne’s Saturday: from his contemplation of a plane crash in the pre-dawn sky through his preparations to leave for a squash game to a fender-bender on a crowded street to his day at the hospital to the evening events stemming from a chance encounter earlier that day and, finally, to contemplating the pre-dawn sky once again. Full circle. Full stop.

It’s exhausting. Beautifully written, but must be read with a certain determination of purpose and gritting of teeth.

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Book review: After Alice by Gregory Maguire

After AliceAfter Alice by Gregory Maguire
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Normally, I’m enthusiastic and giddy over Gregory Maguire’s take on familiar stories. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West just knocked me out. So I especially looked forward to reading Maguire’s version of one of my favorites, “Alice In Wonderland”.

Note the three lonely stars above. So, this one? Not so much.

The title is clever. Ada, whose purpose in life seems to be to run after her neighbor and friend, Alice, somehow manages to fall into Wonderland after Alice tumbled through. Everywhere Ada goes, Alice has already been. It’s as if Alice drained all the color and wonder from Wonderland by her mere presence; and Ada sees only the minutest bit of the whimsy and magic. A tragedy for Ada, if she only knew. And a tragedy for the reader, as well. The Cheshire Cat is merely an annoyance rather than a menace; the Caterpillar is stoned out of his mind; and the Tea Party is breaking up by the time Ada arrives.

Perhaps Maguire was making some metaphorical point. If so, I missed it. His writing is a treat, as always, but this story was a slog.

I think I’ll go read the original again, to clear my palate.

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Book review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rachel’s daily commute takes her past the neighborhood where she once lived, when she was married. The train frequently sits for several minutes at a railstop right behind the back yard of a young couple whom often Rachel spies sitting on their patio; she has built up an elaborate fantasy existence for these two, fueled by the unfulfilled wishes of her own failed marriage. One day Rachel sees the woman kissing someone other than her husband, shocking her out of her fantasy. Shortly after that, she hears that this woman has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Convinced the strange man being kissed has something to do with the disappearance, Rachel goes to the police, only to be dismissed because of her well-known drinking problem. Undeterred, Rachel continues to investigate the disappearance on her own, in the process raising the spectre of her dead marriage and the issues that led to its failure.

The story itself is well-written and, although I started to get an inkling of how things would shake out somewhere about 2/3 through the book, the final twist isn’t telegraphed and still managed to surprise me.

But none of these characters is likeable. Except one. Rachel, the ex-husband, the new wife, the husband of the missing woman, all of them were simply awful. The only person who seems to have any compassion and goodness of character is Rachel’s roommate, who is treated shabbily and still shows Rachel kindness. And while that may make these people more realistic and human, it also makes them difficult to side with: even Rachel, who is her own worst enemy and manages to sabotage herself at every turn. (Having struggled through and overcome a substance abuse problem myself, I am predisposed to empathy for her; even so, I wanted to take her by the shoulders and shout at her more than once. If nothing else, she made me realize how incredibly patient and loving my loved ones were with me when I was in the throes of addiction.)

So, to sum up, a good story, an engaging story, but one peopled by unlikeable characters being unkind to each other. Such is the drama of the London suburb.

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