BOOK REVIEW: The Essex Serpent

THE ESSEX SERPENT

by Sarah Perry

An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love.

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. 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.


I did not fall in love with this book right away. It was one of those relationships where you keep asking: should I or shouldn’t I continue? But things change one muddy night in the marsh, and it’s not until then that this book gets moving at an interesting – albeit slow – pace. The themes of religion, science, superstition, and intrigue start to reveal themselves more clearly then, as do the characters. There is a lot to this story, and it’s a good one! But truth be told, I found the supporting characters much more interesting than the main ones. Forget Cora and Will – meh – pay attention to Francis, Martha, Naomi, and Stella. They are much more fun to follow! — Jen Payne

Read More! Join me?

As you may have guessed, I’m a big fan of the Goodreads Reading Challenge. Last year, it helped me reads more than 50 books; see Goodreads: A Year in Books (2018).

This year, I’m hoping to get to even more of the books on my To Read list.

Join me? Visit Goodreads to sign up today!

(If you’re a Goodreads members, click here and we can follow each other’s progress!)

and then: the new year

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.” – Neil Gaiman


IMAGE: The Moonlight Bed, Jacek Yerka


Goodreads: A Year in Books (2018)

Several years ago, actress Lena Dunham tweeted “Let’s be reasonable and add an eighth day to the week that is devoted exclusively to reading.” Would that it were possible, right?

Lacking an eighth day, we’re left to our own devices to make time for reading. For me, there are treasured Sunday mornings — pre-dawn, coffees at the ready, reading side-by-side with my boyfriend Matt. Then good habits, like carrying a book in my purse, weekly visits to the library, and reading before bed help keep the spirit alive through the work week right back around to those quite Sunday hours.

And all of that good reading mojo has paid off…for the first time in six years, I exceeded my personal Goodreads Reading Challenge goal, reading 54 books in 2018! This year’s tally of 15,121 pages included fiction bestsellers and some classics, one cookbook, poetry and nonfiction, along with a handful of self-published books by some amazing local authors.

Following closely in the footsteps of 2017, you’ll find several Young Adult novels on my list again, including Ransom Riggs’ new book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series: A Map of Days. (“Fair warning: you’ll realize about 2/3 of the way in that you’re going to finish the book soon and you’ll have to wait – again – for the next in the series to magically appear! Pace yourself.”)

Another fun find this year was the Penguin Drop Cap Series, 26 collectible hardcover editions of classic works of literature, each featuring on its cover a specially commissioned illustrated letter of the alphabet by type designer Jessica Hische. This year I read H, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. My local library seems to have a good selection of these special titles, and it’s fun to try to spot them on the shelves. Click here to see all 26.

According to star ratings, some of my least favorite books in 2018 were Brida by Paulo Coelho (“insipid romance”) and The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri (“Nope. Nope. Nope.”). I disliked 1984 by George Orwell so much — “a terribly wretched book” — it completely subverted my attempt to read the 100 books featured in The Great American Read.

Brida was not the only “insipid romance” that earned one or two stars. I was also not a fan of The Atomic Weight of Love (Elizabeth Church), An Obvious Enchantment (Tucker Malarkey), or An Itailan Wife (Ann Hood). Which is not to say I don’t like a good love story. I adored The Course of Love by Alain de Botton — “This should be required reading. For everyone. Period.”

New reads from some of my favorite authors included Keri Smith’s uber-clever book The Wander Society (“Solvitur ambulando!”), Anne Lamott’s Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (“A balm, antidote, inspiration…Wow! and Thanks!”), and Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (“We need this kind of thoughtful examination and heartfelt solutions now more than ever!”).

I recently recommended One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd (Jim Fergus) to a friend, and realized it was one of the most memorable books I read this year. (“we want this to be a true story…and are ever-surprised that it is not”)

Other books that stand out include Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (“a clever piece of dystopian fiction”), Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffengger (“Wonderfully, weirdly delicious!”), and The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan (“I savored it slowly… ”).

But if asked specifically, I would put at the top of my list The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley (“Magically, magically good!!”)

It was, apparently, a good year for reading. But I suspect I’ll run out of superlatives if I don’t stop here. You can read my complete list of 2018 books on Goodreads (click here)…but I want to know about you, too. What were your favorite books in 2018? List them in the commend section below!

HAPPY READING!


A “Best Fiction” List

BuzzFeed News has compiled a list of its favorite novels and short story collections, presented by Arianna Rebolini. Click here to read the full list with reviews.

Have you read any of these? Do you agree with the list?

1. Severance by Ling Ma
2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
3. Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel
4. There There by Tommy Orange
5. Circe by Madeline Miller
6. Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
7. A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
8. The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina
9. The Overstory by Richard Powers
10. The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
11. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
12. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
13. The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea
14. Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
15. The Wildlands by Abby Geni
16. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
17. Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
18. Kudos by Rachel Cusk
19. French Exit by Patrick DeWitt
20. Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala
21. Mem by Bethany C. Morrow
22. She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore
23. The Pisces by Melissa Broder
24. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
25. A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley
26. Milkman by Anna Burns
27. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
28. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai