Day 1102: The Essex Serpent

Cover for The Essex SerpentIn 1885, Cora Seabourne is a recent widow and is happy to be so, as her husband abused her. For the first time, she feels free and is not eager to remarry, even though surgeon Dr. Luke Garrett is in love with her.

Cora is interested in fossils and has made a heroine of the early fossil finder Mary Anning, so she moves with her son Frankie and her friend Martha to Essex, where she can explore the sea coast. Soon after arriving, she hears rumors of the Essex serpent, a monster that has been supposedly terrorizing the area. There are rumors of slain farm animals and lost children. Cora hopes to find a living prehistoric animal. The villagers are more superstitious, and an aura of dread soon develops.

Cora finds happiness rambling around the countryside, so she delays introducing herself to the Ambroses, Reverend William and his wife Stella. But when she finally meets them, they become fast friends. In particular, Will and Cora enjoy debating such subjects as science versus religion, a topic made even more controversial since Darwin’s discoveries. Sadly, it soon becomes obvious that Stella has tuberculosis.

This novel evokes the ideas and preoccupations of the Victorian age. Although it has quite a few characters, they are all convincingly portrayed. I was deeply interested in the novel. It presents a fully realized world, vividly imagined and described.

Related Posts

Remarkable Creatures

The Signature of All Things

Ulverton

Day 1100: The Stranger’s Child

Cover for The Stranger's ChildI had the oddest experience with The Stranger’s Child. Although it was well written and sounded like something I would be interested in, for a while every time I started to read it, I fell asleep. There is very little movement to this novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the end of it had me wondering what the point of it was.

The novel is multigenerational, beginning in 1913 and ending in 2008. In 1913, Daphne Sawle, who is 16, is attracted to her brother George’s friend, Cecil Valance, down for a visit from Cambridge. Cecil is an aristocrat and a poet. Unbeknownst to naive Daphne, he and George are having a wild affair.

The next section of the book takes place ten years after World War I. Cecil died in the war, and the family is dedicating a memorial to him. The family includes Daphne, as she has married Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley, and they have two children. However, she is in love with Revel Ralph, a set designer for the theater.

By far the bulk of the novel is set in the 1960’s and 70’s and is from the point of view of Paul Bryant. In the 1960’s, he is a shy bank clerk. He has become involved with the family through his boss, who has married into it, and through his affair with Peter Rowe, a schoolteacher at Corley House, which used to be the Valance home. Cecil is now regarded as one of England’s minor poets.

Ten years later, Paul is a biographer, determined to out Cecil as a gay man despite the claims of Daphne to have been his fianceé. It is unfortunate that I found this main character of the longest section to be so unappealing and completely focused on who was or was not gay, although I realize that the 1970’s was the time for that kind of revelation.

Part of my problem with the novel may have been the blurb, which really oversells aspects of the plot. For example, it says, “Over time, a tragic love story is spun . . . .” Well, there are several love stories that come out, but I wouldn’t call any of them tragic, and it’s actually difficult to tell which of them this comment refers to. One of the secrets is so understated during the novel that even though it is the last revelation, it seems anticlimactic. I suppose it’s supposed to be ironic that Paul is so focused on the possibility of one affair that he completely misses another.

Finally, this is a novel so focused on the sexuality of its characters that it gives the impression that the entire upper class male population of England is gay. We see a little into Daphne’s infatuations, but otherwise, only from the point of view of various gay men trolling for sex or obsessing about it. Those of you who know me will realize that I would have the same complaint if the sole focus was on heterosexual sex. So, not one of my favorites for my Walter Scott prize project.

Related Posts

Arctic Summer

A Place Called Winter

The Summer Before the War

Day 1099: The Moving Toyshop

Cover for The Moving ToyshopI am sure I previously read one of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen mysteries and was not impressed, but lately several bloggers I enjoy have recommended The Moving Toyshop. So, I decided to try him again.

Richard Cadogen has decided to give himself a holiday in Oxford. When he ends up stranded partway because of the cancellation of a train, he decides to hitchhike the rest of the way. So, he arrives in the outskirts of Oxford at 1 AM.

Curiosity makes him investigate a toy shop that he finds unlocked. Upstairs in the living quarters, he discovers the dead body of an older woman, strangled. Then someone hits him on the head.

When he awakens, he is locked in a closet. He gets out by the window and reports the crime to the police. However, when they arrive at the store, it’s a grocery. The apartment is different than the one he remembers and there is no body. The police think he is crazy.

Cadogen turns to his friend, the eccentric Oxford don, Gervase Fen. Their inquiries begin to turn up a plot to defraud the victim of her inheritance. The problem is, first they have too many suspects and later too few.

This novel has a complicated, fairly unbelievable plot, but it is characterized by a wacky sense of humor, as Gervase and his pals chase bad guys all over town. At one point, he is assisted by a hoard of undergraduates, and the novel ends with an exciting chase on a fast-moving carousel, a la The Third Man. I found the novel fun to read and the characters engaging.

Related Posts

The Iron Clew

Silent Nights

4:50 from Paddington

Day 1093: Pomfret Towers

Cover for Pomfret TowersSomeone once remarked to me that the Angela Thirkell novels set before or during World War II are the best, and so it seems to me, reading this one. Pomfret Towers is set before the war.

Timid young Alice Barton is terrified when she learns she must accept an invitation for a weekend at Pomfret Towers along with her brother, Guy. Lady Pomfret is home on one of her infrequent visits from Italy, and Lord Pomfret wants some young people around to entertain her.

But she needn’t have worried: almost everyone is kind to Alice. Phoebe Rivers, a cousin of the family, has made sure Alice’s room is next to hers and helps her pick out her outfits for dinner. Alice’s good friends, Roddy and Sally Wicklow, are there, Roddy being the junior estate manager. Gillie Foster, Lord Pomfret’s heir, is extremely kind and fetches her shoes for her from the servants. Even Lord Pomfret, who is known for his rudeness, is kind.

One figure who continues to be terrifying is Mrs. Rivers, a best-selling author. Although Alice’s mother is also an author (a better one, we suspect), she is modest about it, unlike Mrs. Rivers, who constantly talks about herself and tries to arrange things for everyone, as if she were the hostess.

Another egoist is Julian Rivers, but Alice only sees how handsome he is and how wonderful he seems to be. His behavior is sometimes unusual, but he is an artist.

One of the things Mrs. Rivers is trying to manage is a marriage between her daughter Phoebe and Gillie Foster, but Gillie seems to prefer talking to Alice or working in the office with Sally. And Phoebe keeps running off with Guy to look at buildings he and his father are restoring.

Pomfret Towers is another romance by Angela Thirkell, full of delightful characters and slightly winking at society. This novel is one I particularly enjoyed. Alice is a little silly, but she is young and lovable, and we are sure everything will come out all right.

Related Posts

Wild Strawberries

Miss Bunting

Vittoria Cottage

Day 1090: The Vicar of Wakefield

Cover for The Vicar of WakefieldI originally selected The Vicar of Wakefield for my Classics Club list because I was trying to choose a few works from different centuries. For the 18th century, I selected this novel and a few others.

Apparently, there is some debate among scholars about whether to take this novel straightforwardly as a sentimental work or to view it as a satire of sentimental novels. Since it reminds me of nothing so much as Candide, I take it as a satire. Even the title is confusing, since the vicar leaves Wakefield for another town early in the novel.

Reverend Primrose leads a comfortable life with his family as the Vicar of Wakefield. His own private fortune is enough that he has made over his salary to various charities. However, early in the novel, he loses his fortune when the merchant he has invested it with runs off. At that point, he leaves Wakefield and his considerable salary for a much smaller salary in another town. Why he does this instead of using his salary for himself is unclear.

Although the family is now poor, Primrose is determined that they can still live happily if they simplify their lives. However, some of his family are not willing to simplify, and their troubles are not over. His oldest boy, George, has had his engagement broken off by his fiancée’s father. And things even get worse. From here on, every decision they make turns out poorly, touching everyone in the family. In fact, though trusting and ready to see the good side of everyone, Primrose shows himself to be remarkably poor in judgment. The family is cheated, deceived, and persecuted by enemies. All the time, though, Primrose tries to see the good in every situation.

This short novel moves along nicely and has a charming though inconsistent narrator in Reverend Primrose. Its narrative is occasionally interrupted, though, by philosophizing and sermonizing, which I found tedious. Some of the plot twists and masquerades are easy to predict, but overall the novel is lively and a bit silly.

Related Posts

Robinson Crusoe

The Antiquary

The Necromancer

Day 1087: Stormbird

Cover for StormbirdBased on the recommendation of Helen of She Reads Novels, I decided to try Conn Iggulden’s series Wars of the Roses. This period of British history has always been fascinating to me, yet confusing, and I have read several nonfiction books about it, as well as a few stand-alone novels about major players in the wars.

When I picked up what I thought was the first book in the series, Margaret of Anjou, I realized it was the second. So, I had to hurriedly get a copy of Stormbird. This accident assures that I will be reading at least the first two of the series.

The novel begins in 1437. King Henry VI, who is clearly not the warrior his father was, has been ceaselessly praying for an end to the Hundred Years War with France. He commands his spymaster, Derry Brewer, to find a way to a truce.

The agreement made with France is that Henry will marry Margaret of Anjou in exchange for the lands of Anjou and Maine, which Henry’s father won back from the French. At no time does Henry give thought to the countless English families who will be displaced in these two provinces.

The point of view moves from person to person throughout the novel, but no one character is central to the story. Some of these characters are the young Margaret of Anjou; Derry Brewer; the loyal William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk; Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York; Thomas Woodchurch, a former longbowman who is displaced from his farm by the truce and decides to fight; and Jack Cade, a resentful renegade who leads a band of Kentish men against London. Most of these characters were actual historical people, with the exception of Derry Brewer.  At first, I thought this constant shift in point of view would become annoying, but I finally realized it allowed me to get to know those characters better.

Iggulden admits to compressing time, making a period of almost 20 years seem like months. I think he could have just as easily indicated some passing of time, because it is occasionally jarring to think only a few months have passed, only to be brought up short by remarks, for example, that the king and queen have been married for years without issue.

Although most of the books I’ve read agree that toward the end of the wars, anyway, the Yorkists had the better claim to the throne, in this preamble to the wars, the Duke of York is definitely the villain. Although he is in charge of Normandy at the time of the truce, he does nothing to protect the fleeing English from the French armies and actively works to blame his inaction on Suffolk, who does the best he can when he takes over York’s position. I notice that the novel is dedicated to a descendant of John of Gaunt, whose immediate descendants made up the Lancastrian side of the conflict.

Overall, I found the novel quick moving and suspenseful, with interesting characters. I’ll be happy to read the second book in this series.

Related Posts

Henry VI, Part I

The Wars of the Roses

Richard III: England’s Black Legend

Day 1082: Revelation

Cover for RevelationIn C. J. Sansom’s fourth Matthew Shardlake novel it is 1543. Matthew’s experiences working for Thomas Cromwell have driven him away from his former Reformist religious views, and he has been avoiding becoming involved in political cases. He has never been happier working for ordinary people in the Court of Requests.

But soon his friend Roger Elliard is murdered in a most peculiar way, and Matthew vows to Roger’s widow Dorothy that he will find the killer. This purpose forces him to work for Archbishop Cranmer, along with the Earl of Hertford and Thomas Seymour, who are all worried that Roger’s death has something to do with Lady Latimer, Catherine Parr, whom the king is courting. Their fears are because of a similar murder of Dr. Gurney, who attended Lord Latimer during his final illness. They appoint Matthew to work with Coroner Hartsnet to find the murderer.

Of course, their fears are political. Henry VIII has been turning more and more back to conservative religious views, away from the Reformists. The Seymours and Cranmer see a marriage to Catherine Parr as the only hope for Reform. The English are more and more polarized by religion, with fanatical Reformists ranting in the street on the one hand while Bishop Bonner cracks down on them on the other.

Soon Matthew is convinced that there have actually been three murders. Further, they are modeled after passages in Revelation that detail seven ghastly visitations.

Although Sansom’s Shardlake mystery novels create a fully realized world with highly developed, convincing characters, there is something about them that holds me back from complete attention. I am always mildly interested but not absorbed. In this case, the novel took me an unheard of twelve days to read. That makes me happy that I have only one more to read, the one for my Walter Scott Prize project, although since I understand there is only one more after that in the series, I may choose to finish the series.

Don’t misunderstand me. These novels have complex mysteries that are difficult to guess and are well researched and interesting. I think lots of people would and do love them. I have personally not been able to decide why I’m not that involved. Perhaps Matthew Shardlake is too depressive for me.

Related Posts

Sovereign

Dark Fire

Dissolution