April Book of the Month- The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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The original legend of the Essex serpent was Perry’s inspiration

A compelling novel that explores the relationships that tie people together- and break them apart.

Set in 1893, the Essex Serpent follows a troop of characters as Cora Seaborne reacts to her husband’s death. Far from the respectful widow, for reasons which Perry tantalisingly hints to throughout, Seaborne is delighted with her newly-found freedom, escaping with her maid and son to the marshy plains of Essex.

Revelling in her man’s overcoats and the death of the whale-bone corset, Seaborne indulges in her passion for archaeology, and finds for herself what might be a living fossil. Only seen by the disaster it had struck- stolen children, sheep drowned, madness seeping throughout the minds of those in the Aldwinter town- it seems like the Essex Serpent has arisen from the estuary once more. Drawn unfathomably to her polar opposite, the brusque local vicar William (whilst she has her beliefs firmly grounded in science), they explore the nature of the rumours together, discovering for themselves not only the power behind a relationship, but the consequences it can have on others, too.

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This novel is brimming with positive attributes: firstly, it is a joyfully authentic Victorian novel, where every detail, though not tediously precise, contributes to the stifling atmosphere of the smog-filled streets, or helps conjure up the tension that Darwin’s new theory had struck up amongst those in society. So this can appeal to those that love to dabble in the historic genre, especially since this is one of the few 19th-century (style) novels that not only have women starring as protagonists, but are actively rebelling against the roles that society had given them, with the consequences shown, too. Dracula, Frankenstein and Oliver Twist, classics though they may be, don’t give a flavour for the life of women, and although there may be Austen with Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey (which was unbelievably dull, like a stale cracker), here you almost have the real thing but things you care about actually happen.

Like the mystery behind a giant snake in an estuary. Who said mythical beasts couldn’t be in successful adult novels? (It did win Waterstone’s 2016 Book of the Year, after all.) This adds an aspect of intrigue and fantasy to the novel, creating a tone of wonder after it has been soured slightly by the maid Martha ranting about the London Housing Crisis. (Something which I was completely ignorant of beforehand, but now I feel suitably educated in thanks to reading this.) That’s another positive; it covers a wide spectrum of characters in terms of ages and backgrounds, so that the plot isn’t isolated in the stuffy upper-class corner. (Admittedly, it doesn’t have someone from every single ethnic background, or sexual orientation, which apparently has become the benchmark for a book with ‘character equality’ these days, but it satisfies me.)

All in all, a superb read which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in historical literature or emotive, fantastical writing with complex relationships between characterss.

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The Night Manager- John Le Carré

Observe Jonathan Pine, stage right, taking on the worst man in the world, in the BBC Production  a captivating spy thriller, set in the mid 20th century. Absorb the deliciously shady alliance between the secret arms community and the centres of intelligence around the world. Notice the man trying to stay afloat whilst everyone else drowns around him.

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Jonathan Pine is a night manager at an affluent hotel in Zurich, and just another rich man comes to stay the night. Of course, he has booked out only the majority of the hotel- the most expensive suites, (to accommodate his sweeping entourage,) and, naturally, has it all. The wealth, the slavering posse and the charm. But this man, Richard Onslow Roper, also has a secret arms trade to his name. Coordinating it from afar, he controls the entire enterprise and soon becomes a target for Jonathan Pine. Now, look behind Pine’s perfected smile, the rigid tie and suit. He is merely seeking refuge from his past at the hotel, with a history in the military and years of specialist spy training. Yes. Crucially, he isn’t a heroic man trying to take on the world. Come on, this is Le Carré, he is a bit more realistic than that- let’s give him some credit. Actually, whilst we’re at it, let’s also mention the girlfriend in. Roper has a girlfriend-Jed, about half his age (obviously)- and being that typical spy, women of all types are magically attracted to Pine, including Roper’s girlfriend. You understand how it comes to be problematic.

But that’s not the only thing which is problematic: for some reason, Le Carré cannot find a single interesting, empowering role for women in his novel. It is so male-centric, from the main figures in intelligence to Roper’s circle of friends. The only women that feature are various doting wives and a sprinkling of girlfriends of Pine’s. And the only things that they seem to be good at is all being mysteriously attracted to him, betraying their original boyfriends and beliefs in some form for him, and then being unceremoniously ditched as Pine has to flee to another corner of the world. Most notable of these is Jed, Roper’s/ Pine’s (yes…) girlfriend, who is a complete airhead. Even when she attempts to break free from her mould and display some signs of intelligence, Le Carré simply has to scold her for it…(spoiler alert) in the sense that she manages to break the lock on Roper’s office, and leaves a hair! Understandably, it is a useful way to demonstrate to the readers that she has been present there, but this merely demotes her in terms of our impression of her intelligienc. By leaving a trail, Jed is portrayed as more of a snooping girlfriend and less the inquisitive spy, which is accurate enough but regardless does her no favours. Wait! Excuse me, there is actually a half-hearted attempt at equality in the secret circles: a woman who is depicted more like a teddy bear than anything else: she’s known as Darling Katie, and no, it is not ironic. This book may have been published in 1993, but attitudes towards women’s role in society hasn’t changed that much.

The way the antagonist, Roper, is presented is unusual, because not only does he have flaws, such as he is an egomaniac and has a massive arms/ drugs business… but Le Carré has cleverly given him positive characteristics, so that as a reader in a way you can sympathise with him. Not to such the extent that when he eventually is tossed by the ankles in the volcano (this doesn’t actually happen), that you feel remorse, but enough so that there is a hesitation. Roper is almost ignorant. Because we all know villains are self-titled, they don’t believe they are committing evil, and the same applies to Roper. He simply sees his “profession” as a competitive way of living. (Not sure how sympathetic one can be tho
ugh, having said that, considering all the murder and gore that’s involved.)

The novel was sluggish initially, with the first few hundred pages a chore to read. There was concentrated, precise language used, so it was always slightly a struggle to settle into at the end of a long day, but nevertheless, by the time we got to page 350, I felt like I was getting into it. You know what they say- better late than never. In this sense, it was similar to Catch-22. (Never a compliment…) On the other hand, it was seamless by the end, and throughout there was a sticky atmosphere of tension which, when the action truly evolved, made it an impulsive read.

What did you think of the Night Manager? What is your favourite spy thriller this year? Have you seen the BBC Production too- how do they compare?

The Moth- Book of the Month November

You walk away from a conversation with friends. Shaking your head, marvelling at the bizarre cases of truth. How no one could possibly have made that up. Welcome to the Moth.

The Moth is a kind of event, where people stand up and recount true hilarious, heart-breaking or horrifying stories on the stage. And, standing alone on the stage, clutching only their memories and a mic in their hands, they all have a personal touch. The Moth as a novel is no different: it is merely a compilation of 50 of the best short stories that have been told. Originally, The Moth was created to mimic that feeling of story-telling around the campfire, as your words pour out of you whilst everyone else is leaning in, the flames’ shadows flickering on your face. There is a deep sense of satisfaction rooted in sharing stories; after all we’ve been doing it for most of our history, and just because we have superior technology doesn’t mean this art should fade away: that’s why it is called The Moth; it reflects the fact that humans are attracted to stories like moths to a light, and maybe it is our light; our escape from reality.

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And, although it’s in the written word, this has still been conveyed into the book. Each story has been copied from the speaker (because they’re all spoken on-stage, remember,) word for word. This is fantastic for us, readers, because it presents you with the genuine idiosyncrasies of their voices. You feel like they’re standing over their shoulder, whispering into your ear, and you truly get a framework for their character. People speak differently depending on their upbringing. You know that. So you will understand how frustrating it is when all the characters in a book sound the same; well, all I can say is that the Moth will provide relief in that respect.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys any form of a short story, because there is a wide variation in the topics covered, so you’re bound to find something that appeals to you. Each one is a convenient length so that normally you can read it in one sitting, but usually I’m so enthralled by the previous tale I am driven to discover the next one, and see where it leads me! The best thing about The Moth is that there are so many topics covered. It isn’t simply about travelling, or love, or that funny thing Jeff said yesterday. There are magnificent stories, such as the one about the man who saved Mother Teresa’s life, or optimistic ones, like the woman testing out life with a new prosthetic limb, or harrowing stories about a scientist and his relationship with his monkey used in experiments. It evoked so many emotions with me- so if you’re looking for an uplifting read or a challenging one, then look no further.

 

Are short stories novel?

A calamity has occurred. I am barely scraping in enough time to read, struggling as I am with the obligations of everyday life.  And since I am embarrassingly lacking books to review, I will instead try to settle the dispute that has divided the country for centuries. Is the short story the champion of literature, greater in impact than it is in length, or is the humble novel the true victor? Read on to see them go head to head. Go on- settle in, bring popcorn, and watch this tense battle unfold.

Novels are a thing of beauty. With plots flourishing across several hundred pages, and intriguing characters that morph and develop before your eyes, they are things you can truly invest in, even if it’s only for a fortnight.
Of course, these characters may spontaneously die on you, but you will always have a place, hidden between pages, that you can return too. In novels, you can truly indulge in the world building and marvel at the view from that spaceship’s portal. You have the luxury of pages to explore a new world; you aren’t plunged headfirst into the relentless action (well, I hope not); you can settle into novels, meet them regularly on the commute to work and habitually wave goodbye at the last train stop. And there’s that delightful horror at the plot twist, which you didn’t even notice was looming over you until it drenched you with surprise. With short stories, all the action is shoved into the expanse of a few pages, and the forms are generally limited. Do short stories give us that satisfying multiple points of view, or scatter letters in between the pages of prose? I thought not.

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Short stories, on the other hand, are miracles in themselves. Everyone is busy. You know that. There are constantly deadlines swirling around our heads and stress clogging in the corners of our lives. That is partly the reason why I haven’t had enough time to finish a book. Because yes, reading is fantastic, but there isn’t always enough time: of course we wish there was, but with some things even intentions aren’t enough. Thankfully, a marvellous creation was born. The best thing about short stories, even if they are part of a collection, is that you can dip into them, when you notice with glee that you have a spare 25 minutes. They are undemanding creatures. They don’t need to much commitment, only asking for you to follow along for a few pages. In that respect, novels are so needy. They beg you to stay with them hours, and when you want to leave, that gripping plot just clutches you closer, your duties elsewhere becoming a vague memory. One ought to be aware of this. And the best thing about short stories is the impact is they have. The authors have to be economical with their words:  you won’t find soliloquies draped across pages, and endless recounts of that view of the Alps from the winter break six years ago. No rambling and endless internal monologues about what Clancy said to Clark about Clara concerning their course with Clarence and Carl. Short stories are a relief. Mercilessly blunt. Some might find the fact you can’t truly get a sense of a characters from a short story, but I don’t believe this to necessarily be true. Even in the space of a few pages, I believe that you can relate and identify with characters, granted that the author has relative competency. Also, short stories ensure that you are never bored, because by the time the story becomes dull- it’s over! Flick a page and you’ve entered a whole other kingdom, a new scene, different characters. Purge your mind of the bored and prepare to be inspired again.

So, what are better, collections of short stories or novels? It depends on your situation. If you have a tedious car journey squatting before you, it is a perfect opportunity to invest time into the characters, to discover them and devour the pages. But if you have limited time, or only have the opportunity to read rarely, them short stories are more attractive, as you aren’t at risk of forgetting the plot, or becoming emotionally disconnected from the story as time progresses. Personally, I prefer novels because I feel often cheated when I begin to engage with a character in short stories, and they simply wander off elsewhere, and I am left, confused and metaphorically alone. I am willing to see time stretch before me as I trudge through the chapters.

Please feel free to comment your opinion below. Which one do you think triumphs? What novel or short story is your favourite?