The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This book was absolutely unavoidable when it came out. It sounded like something I’d like but I never did prioritise it until it came up as my book club’s choice.

Unfortunately I’ve had to return it to the library and I didn’t take notes (“I’ll remember that” – you’d think I’d have learned by now that will never happen).  I suspect there are many plot synopses all over the net.

I liked it a lot, but I didn’t love it.  One of the reviews quoted on the cover says it’s what would happen if Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker wrote a novel.

a) it’s not that convincing a Victorian novel – I can name two off the top of my head – Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber.

b) it’s really not that gothic.  I’ve seen more than one review that references its gothicness, all by people who need to get out more.

It’s well written.  There’s nothing in it that is so out of time it jars (note: my areas of expertise are somewhat earlier but like any avid reader I know a bit about the Victorian era).  The characters are believable and engaging.  There was just nothing in it that really spoke to me.

(It is worth noting that at this point I realised that nearly all the books that have really rocked my world in recent years or months have been written by authors from and about different cultures.  Maybe I’m just done with the familiar.)

It wasn’t until approximately a week after I finished it that I realised that the big reveal of the actual Essex Serpent at the end was stunningly well done.

Despite the foregoing, I do recommend it.  Just because it was not necessarily the right book for me does not make it a bad book by any criteria.

Saskatchewan Heroes & Rogues by Ruth Wright Millar

This one’s been sitting around for years.  Obviously, it was a gift from someone in my family.

12 short portraits of people from Saskatchewan(1) who have done Cool Stuff ranging from being a cowboy to being a nurse in the Chinese civil war.  Five women.  One Jewish person.  No First Nations.  So could do better for representation.  Reasonably well written for this kind of thing, though, and kind of fun.

(1) Sometimes the affiliation with Saskatchewan is pretty tenuous, and with one exception all the Cool Stuff they did was outside of Saskatchewan.

The Green Man’s Heir by Juliet E McKenna

I’ve seen Juliet E McKenna speak at cons and various events around Bristol since 2006 or thereabouts.  Every time I am more impressed by her than the last, and I think “I really have to start reading her books”.  Her output is mainly epic fantasy which isn’t really my thing, but when I heard that she had written an urban fantasy/folk horror number, I decided the universe had sent me a message and grabbed a copy straight away.

Daniel Mackmain is a carpenter who doesn’t like to stay in one place for more than a few months.  He is also the son of a dryad mother and human father.  One day he is gathering wood for carving in the Peak District and meets a dryad (he’s never met one besides his mum).  Shortly after a young woman is killed in the same place. Having been in the area at the time, the police are looking at Daniel’s movements very closely.  It soon becomes apparent to him that the murder has something to do with the supernatural world that he comes from, and that only he can solve it.  He just needs to find some other folkloric entities to help him expunge an ancient evil from the land, while avoiding the attention of the police.

The very existence of this book ticks most of my boxes, but this isn’t just another supernatural detective story.  It’s really well written, excellently plotted and paced.  McKenna fuses the amateur detective format with the myths and folklore of Britain beautifully.  There aren’t any elements here one hasn’t seen before, but the way they are put together is a real treat.

Also, this book very much makes one glad that boggarts aren’t a real thing.  Thoroughly nasty little creatures.

Very much recommended, and you should absolutely make space for the paper edition – the cover art is gorgeous.

Officers and Gentlemen by Evelyn Waugh

This was my book club’s selection for last month.  I’d never read any Waugh so it couldn’t fail to be at least an educational experience.  (That wasn’t sarcasm.  I’m always looking to fill the gaps in my cultural knowledge).

Beautiful prose, shame about everything else.  Even allowing for it being a product of a less socially enlightened time, it’s full of unnecessary vitriol, particularly directed at people who don’t know their place.  (Book club conclusion, with which I concur: Waugh had an extraordinary amount of self loathing going on).

Beautiful prose aside, two things redeem it:  First, early in the second part of the book, a bunch of top brass become aware of the useless group of “commandos” the novel is about and essentially have a meeting putting their heads in their hands and figuring out how to do the least harm.  It was really funny.  The second is the portrayal of the British withdrawal from Crete, which felt like a very real description of the chaos of retreat, where nobody knows what is going on.

But otherwise, just no.  Unless you really want to know, in spades, how upper-middle-class men of the 1950s men felt about everyone that wasn’t them.  Which we all know, really, and we don’t need reminding.

The War in the Dark by Nick Setchfield

This review is jumping the queue because I got sent an advance review copy and only started to read it on release day.  Also, I want to get the news out there in a timely fashion.

It’s 1963 and British Intelligence assassin Christopher Winter is sent on a routine job.  But the priest he is sent to kill turns out to be a demon, his handlers drug him to get him to tell the truth, his wife tries to kill him, and the only person he trusts in the Service is killed.  Acting upon a final clue left by his colleague, Winter is led on a quest through Cold War Mitteleurope in search of an occult weapon which would ensure victory for the side that holds it.  There’s a creepy mansion in the Vienna Woods, tunnels under Berlin (a Berlin which I recognise more from having seen Wings of Desire like 20 times than from having been there recently), lost towers in Bavaria – all stuff I cannot resist.

I read *a lot* of urban fantasy.  For approximately the first quarter of the book, I was thinking “this wants to be the Laundry books without the humour”.  But that was harsh and unfair.  Setchfield very much  has his own voice, and this book is well plotted and paced. I ended up enjoying it very much.  (Anyway it’s more Len Deighton than Stross, and if I was to pick an occult espionage novel to compare it to it would be Tim Powers’ Declare.) Granted, none of the occult elements are new or presented in a particularly original way, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a good solid occult spy thriller, and I early await further books by this author.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I bought this when it first came out because I liked the presentation as a faux-antique book with the photographs.  I’ve only got around to reading it because we recently got a Now TV subscription, which has made the film available, and I wanted to read the book first.

Our protagonist is Jacob, a rich, underachieving Florida teenager whose life is changed when he sees his grandfather killed by monsters.  He is understandably traumatised, and everyone thinks he is crazy because he told people what he saw.  Going through his grandfather’s effects, he finds there’s a lot more to the old man than he knew, and drags his father off to a remote island off the coast of Wales to find clues to his grandfather’s early life.

Here he comes across the eponymous Home and Peculiar Children, and adventures ensue.

It’s reasonably well enough written in that the voice of a hitherto not-very-engaged adolescent boy comes through well, and I quite enjoyed it right up until Jacob finds the Home.  Unfortunately this book fell down completely for me because I found the mythos not at all thought through, pointless and unconvincing.

Build me a world I enjoy and I will read any old shite.  This one just left me going “what?”, in a bad way.  Ends on a cliffhanger and I didn’t immediately order the sequel.  Am actually contemplating not watching the film now, I care that little.

The Devourers by Indra Das

I heard about this from a friend, thought it sounded good for my attempt to read more books by non-Western authors, bought it and it promptly sat on my shelf for a couple of years.

Alok, a young history professor in Kolkata, meets a man who claims to be half werewolf, who starts to tell him a story that completely mesmerises him.  They meet up again and the stranger gives Alok two manuscripts to transcribe that tell the rest of the story.

Set in the time of the Mughals, when the various European nations were just starting to trade with India, the manuscripts tell the story of the strangers parents – a centuries-old werewolf from France, and a lower-class Indian woman.  This story is interwoven with the story of the relationship between Alok and the stranger. It’s violent and often unpleasant (the stranger is a product of rape), but it certainly kept me wanting to know what happens next.  The description of the European werewolves is pretty viscerally icky.  (A large group of them came East about the time of the crusades in search of a supposed tribe of Indian werewolves in the Sunderbans).

Apart from the narrative, there’s a fair bit going on here.  The book is set up in the format of the “frame tale”, something that 18th century Orientalists were convinced was the hallmark of “oriental” works (such as the Thousand and One Nights) and was used by various early Romantic poets to add an exotic flavour to their work.  I think there’s a lot about the Indian reaction to colonialism I’m not getting.  (Das grew up in India but as an adult has lived in the USA and Canada).  The European traders are seen as marginal and not a threat.  The protagonist is quite Westernised and doesn’t speak the dialect of the area where his family are from.  Despite being engaged at the beginning of the novel, Alok is attracted mainly to men and he has to work that out for himself.

There’s enough threads to this book that it could have been a mess, but I felt that it all came together quite well, and that it is well written and paced, and a worthwhile read even with all the unpleasantness.

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

Anna read at BristolCon Fringe last year.  This is not the sort of fantasy book I would usually be particularly interested in – I have a limited tolerance for grimdark (I know, take away my goth card).  But she is an expert in medieval poetry and it was obvious from her short reading that she knows all about alliteration and repetition and all the other stuff that makes literature for a semi-literate society (ie most people will have it read aloud to them) work.  So I bought the book, in hardcover.

It’s (I guess) typical grimdark fantasy stuff – a company of mercenaries is brought to the city to overthrow the king and everything goes predictably wrong.  But the aftermath is not at all what I was expecting, involving the adventures of an escaped priestess and an exiled, drug addicted, berserker prince-turned-mercenary.

Everything about the world in which they live is repellent – the “civilised” society is nothing but a theatre of cruelty.  (Well, it’s superficially gorgeous and sumptuous).

At one level, all of the characters are horrible people.  But look a little closer and most of them have endearing, human features and motivations and some of their failings can be explained by the brutal society in which they live.  (Some.)

The prose is beautiful.  While Smith Spark obviously appreciates medieval poetry, the use of its elements is not overwhelming.  (I Get It because I’ve read a fair amount of medieval poetry myself; I don’t think that the language would confuse anyone who hasn’t).  I particularly loved the use of interior monologue following what is said out loud.  It caused me to laugh out loud more than once.  The novel overall was a lot easier to read than the part that she read to us had indicated.

Between the language and the really cool plotting, I found myself really enjoying this book and I will be picking up her new book at some point.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

I broke my current rule for buying books (I only do so if the author is in the room with me to sign it) when I heard Jesmyn Ward speaking about this on Radio 4’s Start the Week programme.  She said a lot of really impressive things in general but the clincher was her description of the work as a road trip in the tradition of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.  The next time I was near a book shop I picked up a copy.

The book is narrated mainly by Jojo, a 13 year old mixed race boy living in Mississippi, and his mother Leonie (black), a meth addict and part time waitress.  They live with Leonie’s parents, both of whom (unlike Leonie) are steady, positive influences on Jojo.  Sadly, the grandmother is dying.  But the poverty they live in is grinding and so much of the description of the way they live sounds like something right out of Faulkner, to the extent that when the characters use cell phones it seems wrong.

Leonie’s finds out her boyfriend is being let out of jail early and so she, Jojo, the younger child Kayla and Leonie’s friend Misty, set off on a journey to the jail to pick him up in a not-registered and insured car, so by the backroads.  Unsurprisingly, the trip does not go smoothly.

The book is also narrated by Ritchie, the ghost of a boy who was in jail with Pop (the grandfather) many years ago.  (Because there is more to everyone in this story than first meets the eye).

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  The prose is utterly beautiful, lyrical and captivating.  One reads a lot of news reports these days about racist incidents in the USA; nothing has ever made me feel it so viscerally as this novel.  There is a scene when they are pulled over by the cops, who pull a gun on Jojo and he nearly gets shot.  Michael, the father, is white, and his family are so racist it’s right out of Faulkner.  This is an absolute condemnation of the system that kills young black men (Leonie’s brother was killed by a white teenager in a “hunting accident”) or puts them in jail for next to nothing, and the absolute inability to lead a good life or get ahead in their circumstances.

As for the As I Lay Dying parallels, they are certainly there but if you don’t know it you wouldn’t feel like there was something big you were missing.  (I’ve read it but a long time ago).  There is a race against time to get back home before the grandmother dies (who is some sort of a local healer woman with voodoo undertones, and her story is fascinating in itself, as is the backstory of Pop as it is revealed).  There is even an obscure and not entirely linear reference to being a snake.  It’s incredibly skilfully done.

I was very disappointed to read that this didn’t win the Women’s Fiction Prize, because I cannot imagine a finer book.  I also wish I hadn’t sat on this review for a month because I had a lot of thoughts at the time which I failed to write down.

I am really having a wonderfully good year for books – this is at least the third book I’ve read this year where I think “it can’t get any better than this”.  We shall see.

The Old Religion by Martyn Waites

I’ve read two of Martyn’s books where he is writing as Tanya Carver.  They’re perfectly serviceable thrillers but not that special.

I was at an event the other week where Martyn described this book as “Brexit noir meets The Wicker Man”.  Sold!

Tom Killgannon is an ex-cop under witness protection, currently working as a bartender in a remote Cornish village.  One day he lets a young on the run from the local “hippie” (not) commune crash at his house, but she spooks and takes off with his jacket.  Which has all of his new identity in it.  He can’t tell his police handler because of Reasons so he sets out to find the girl, and his ID, himself.

Meanwhile, things in the village are Not Right.  The residents are really focussed on getting the last bit of EU funding to restore the harbour, and some people are decidedly scared.

As things do, these two things turn out to be part of the same mystery and  Tom is stuck right in the middle.

I loved this one, couldn’t put it down.  If you read crime and/or folk horror at all you should really check it out.