Tag Archives: eco

THE ESSEX SERPENT by Sarah Perry

the-essex-serpent-by-sarah-perry

“They seek out signs and find them”

There’s much to recommend this book, including some incredibly evocative and luscious descriptions of the natural world that gave me real pangs of longing to visit the saltings and Blackwater estuary where much of it is set – or just to get outside and feel moss, ferns, and cold air as a means to escape an unnaturally humid September in London. Told over the course of the year, Perry charts the seasons and the ebb and flow of life in the Essex village of Aldwinter, and has conjured a cast of colourful, sparkling characters and a narrative that is both captivating and intellectually satisfying.

The serpent of the title is a black winged leviathan that Aldwinter’s residents  are blaming for poor crops, drownings, spoilt milk, ghost ships, disappearances and a hysteria that has claimed even the rector’s daughter. Neither horseshoes hung in the branches of Traitor’s Oak nor dead animals strung up alongside skulls seem to repel the beast, whose dark presence looms on every page. It draws newly widowed Cora Seagrave,with the promise of scientific discovery – perhaps it’s even a dinosaur that may have survived extinction – and the chance to be published alongside reputable women naturalists in a Victorian era fascinated by the gothic and the scientific in equal measure.

Cora strikes up an intense friendship with Aldwinter’s rector, William Ransome, whose beautiful, sickly wife, Stella, is an obsessive collector of shades of blue and rivals Cora’s autistic son, Francis, with her collection of objects. The novel is interspersed with various letters, which veer from cordiality, via flirtation, to deeply confessional. The pair’s growing attraction for one another is soon evident to their wider circle of acquaintances and friends, including talented surgeon, Imp or Luke Garrett, who replicates human vertebra in papier mache for a fancy dress party and is himself is head over heels in love with Cora; and Luke’s friend George Spencer, who “once let Luke stitch and restitch a long cut of his own to perfect his needlework”, and holds a candle for Cora’s companion and ardent socialist, Martha. The kindly Charles and Katherine Ambrose, bring political context to the novel, which has Martha’s attempts to improve the tenements of Bethnal Green as a sub plot.

Perry forces religion and science to rub up against one another and tackles Victorian morality head on. Ransome is certain that “rumors of monsters are nothing more than evidence that we have let go of the rope that tethers us to everything that’s good and certain” yet inhabits a world in which social housing tenants are evicted if they enjoy a drink or two, and he is driven literally wild by a woman who’s not his wife. Cora, modern and with the freedom afforded to women who are financially secure, scorns religion for being just as full of blood and brimstone as the pagansim to which the villagers revert at every opportunity. She instinctively worships the natural world, imbues it with mysticism and symbolism, sees herself as no higher than an animal, yet is always grasping at new ideas. Spending time with William renders her “brimming with things to offer” and incapable of not giving them. There’s no denying the biblical undertones that cast Cora in the role of an alternative, “gleaming, gleeful”, Essex serpent who has brought sexual voracity, notions of equality and knowledge to the village.

A big book in lots of ways, including the number of pages, it is imbued with a heavy sense of mortality – as George says “sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth’s a graveyard.” Yet it also visits Gordon’s by the Embankment, “where the walls drip into the candles” – and where I have spent more than one happy evening – and teaches us that hare’s fur is the colour of almonds fresh out of their shells. For Perry has written a novel that captures both the breadth and smallness of a moment in time, and one that puts location, plot and characters in their rightful place.  It makes for both a deeply pleasurable read and one that’s simultaneously rather dissatisfying, when all’s told.

“On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels.”

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under drama, historical, love story

PANDEMONIUM & REQUIEM: DELIRIUM TRILOGY by Lauren Oliver

pandemonium by lauren oliverrequiem by lauren oliver

I read DELIRIUM some time ago and wasn’t overly impressed. These two books complete the trilogy and are much better and edgier. “The animals are on the other side of the fence: monsters wearing uniforms. They speak softly, tell lies, and smile as they’re slitting your throat”.

Central protagonist Lena has grown up overnight after losing her first love, Alex, as the pair escaped to the Wilds in a bid to avoid the Cure, a compulsory procedure supposed to protect everyone from amor deliria nervosa – otherwise known as love. In the Wilds she’s taken in by Invalids who are part of a resistance movement and, after they nurse her back to full strength, is sent back amongst the Cured to gather information that will help those fighting for the right to love. She is sent specifically to spy on the members of deliria-free America (DFA), an evangelical political group who want to quell public unrest by administering the Cure at an ever younger age. When one of the DFA’s rallies comes under attack, Lena ends up following Julian, the son of one of DFA’s key figures, then being captured alongside him by mercenary inhabitants of the Wilds. The connection they make as the pair try to escape persuades him that falling in love isn’t the curse he’s been raised to believe and Julian decides to join Lena and the rest of the resistance fighters. In the final book, we pick up the story of Lena’s former best friend, Hanna, who is supposed to marry one of the DFA’s rising stars and this thread gives us a new insight into life after the Cure and the political struggle to control an increasingly fractured and unhappy society.  Lena’s cousin Grace makes a reappearance towards the very end too, as a symbol of innocence and a potentially better future.  She is also proof that, despite what is claimed for the Cure, the past is more than a “the barest impression on sparkling glass”, and choice means embracing and learning from what’s gone before, rather than letting it bury you.

There’s much about freedom and choice woven into the different stories Oliver gives us and some stand out lines, including about the power to choose the wrong thing and how that’s beautiful. It’s an idea picked up at the end of the book, which feels much less extreme than some of these kinds of trilogies. Lena knows true rage and despair, at one point promising, “If you take, we will take back. Steal from us, and we will rob you blind. When you squeeze, we will hit.” But as the books draw to a close, we understand how she has been changed irrevocably by the loss and suffering she has both seen and endured. She learns that hatred “will feed you and at the same time turn you to rot”. And now she  talks about tearing down walls and living together, rather than destroying those who have caused  misery. In fact the books very consciously identify reconciliation as the key to a peaceful future:

“Take down the walls. Otherwise you must live closely, in fear, building barricades against the unknown, saying prayers against the darkness, speaking verses of terror and tightness. Otherwise you may never know hell, but you will not find heaven either. You will not know fresh air and flying.”

Lena’s emotional journey is just as gripping as her political one. She struggles to accept the loss of Alex, and her feelings of guilt at surviving are compounded when she starts to fall for someone else. The soppy self indulgent teen who irritated me in DELIRIUM has been replaced by someone far stronger and in control though and this keeps the story from subsiding into mush. She is reunited with the mother she once thought was dead, and, when the streets of her hometown of Portland become a battleground between the resistance and the DFA, Lena makes a series of brave decisions that mark her out as no ordinary young woman. As one of the lines from a forbidden text reminds her “He who jumps may fall, but he may also fly”. She takes risks without being reckless and this grounds the book amidst plenty of action and adventure. No doubt the film makers who buy the rights to bring this series to the screen will have a field day with the number of explosions that happen, and there’s plenty of hand to hand combat, apocalyptic flooding, bombing and trekking underground too.

Exciting, thoughtful and as addictive as amor deliria nervosa, these books are five star young adult fiction.

Leave a comment

Filed under drama, sci-fi, Uncategorized

THE MAZE RUNNER; THE SCORCH TRIALS; THE DEATH CURE; THE KILL ORDER by James Dashner

the maze runner trilogy by james dashner

I saw a trailer for THE SCORCH TRIALS and this piqued my interest in the books. They are OK but I don’t think I’ll bother going to see the films. The premise is that most of the human race has been infected by something called The Flare, which was unleashed in a government experiment and slowly eats away at your brain, turning you mad. Those who appear immune are part of a programme to develop a cure, which entails putting them through various trials to see how they react and rebuild various pathways in people’s brains.

Things I liked about the series:

  • In common with much of this genre of fiction, there’s a powerful sense of right and wrong in the big picture, but the grey areas are explored too, by the way individuals respond and relate to events and the world around them.
  • There are strong, well developed female characters who provide more than just love interest for the main protagonist, Thomas. He in turn is sensitive, caring and complex, as are several of the other boys in the books.
  • Each novel has a distinct landscape that gives it a very different feel to the others in the series (much like eg HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy) and those landscape are vivid and very visual.
  • The endless double-crossing, twists and manipulation – the reader is always at the same disadvantage as Thomas, including about his own role in initiating the trials, and that keeps things interesting.
  • Alec, a central character in THE KILL ORDER, who is by the far the most interesting and likeable across the entire series.

Things I liked less:

  • The ending is far too abrupt – or at least it was when reading on my Kindle and not realising that THE KILL ORDER, which is really just a novella, was tacked on the end. The conclusion of THE DEATH CURE is also hugely idealistic and unsatisfying, even for a fan of happy, idealistic endings, like myself, with no real political resolution to the issues of control and corruption that have been centre stage through much of the series.
  • The whole series feels like it’s written with a franchise in mind – from the  grand sets, which are pitch perfect for the big screen, to the extra books, which don’t really add that much in terms of plot and could just have been woven into the original trilogy.
  • The Grievers, automated slugs who wield spikes and shears, and can administer stings that bring on disturbing symptoms not dissimilar to taking large quantities of acid. They make this list not because of their inherent unpleasantness but because I felt they were superfluous and because I prefer my baddies to be human.

The plot is far too complicated to reprise in any detail but overall it works, it’s convincing and gripped me for a few weeks. Credit where credit’s due, Dashner has started with a compelling idea and turned it into a story that’s entertaining and asks all the right questions. There’s just one problem: I read every one of these new young adult trilogies in the expectation it will match up to THE HUNGER GAMES and I am repeatedly disappointed when it doesn’t.

Leave a comment

Filed under fantasy, sci-fi

THE BEES by Laline Paull

the bees by laline paull

This book is unlike anything I have read before and defies all the terms I normally use to categorise books on this blog. I’ve classed it as thriller and factual but that really doesn’t do it justice. Paull has built a moving, and at the same time terrifying, story around life in a bee hive. There’s some elements that feel like a children’s story book, such as the Patisserie & Pollen area of the hive where the bees’ bread is made, and others that are distinctly adult, such as the mass blood lust which disposes of drones who have outlived their usefulness. Every kin in the hive has its place, from the high priestess Sage to the lowly Flora, and each bee is entranced by their daily diet of propaganda – Accept, Obey and Serve. But at the centre of this story is a bee who is gifted beyond what’s usual in her kin: Flora 717, strong, good at foraging and soon adept at keeping secrets from her superiors.

The hive faces numerous challenges – including an attack by wasps, a particularly harsh winter, disease and the loss of their Queen – and this keeps the narrative moving. But really this book is a homage to the incredible way in which a hive operates, albeit one that reflects the brutal realities of an uncompromising totalitarian society. The fertility police who patrol the hive are truly frightening, as is the way in which the Queen’s entourage manipulate and control the other bees.

From the way that the bees dance out directions to the sweetest nectar, to their regular Devotions to the Queen; from how they enter into a trance over the winter, to how they mummify hive invaders they’ve stung to death in propolis with remarkable disinfectant powers; from how they use scent to communicate, to the joy the forager bees experience as they hunt for flowers; THE BEES is a window not just into the hive but into every aspect of the way in which it survives. Purists might question the liberal use of personification upon which the story rests, but I was perfectly happy to go along with it, and was rewarded with a truly astonishing and original novel.

Leave a comment

Filed under factual, thriller

WOOL TRILOGY by Hugh Howey; THREE by Sarah Lotz; THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY by Simon Wood; THE HOURGLASS FACTORY by Lucy Ribchester; BLOOD ON SNOW by Joe Nesbo; THE ANGEL’S GAME by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

So the last several weeks have been dominated by general election campaigning and that’s meant no blogging – though I’ve still managed to read plenty. Here’s a quick run down just for the record:

wool trilogy by hugh howey

WOOL TRILOGY by Hugh Howey. By far and away the best of its kind I’ve read in a while. A dangerous visionary triggers Armageddon and a mass experiment that sees the creation of several communities living in underground silos, with only a very few individuals entrusted with the knowledge that they are not the only survivors. Regular “cleanings” are used to eradicate anyone who comes too close to discovering the truth or asking awkward questions. But one day someone survives a cleaning – a tough mechanic made sheriff called Jules – setting in motion a chain of events that forces her and others to question everything they think they know. Howey has created a dystopian future that is credible, detailed and deeply disturbing. He’s ruthless in his disposal of key characters and brutally honest in his assessment of both the best and worst of human nature. Jules is easily the main attraction though. No selfless hero, she nevertheless possesses something most of her peers have abandoned – hope. It drives her to take huge personal risks, endure extreme physical hardship and inspire others.  It also made this the perfect book for the desolate political climate in which I was reading it.

three by sarah lotz

THREE by Sarah Lotz – four planes crash simultaneously, killing all but 3 children who survive against seemingly impossible odds and one woman, Pamela May Todd, who clings onto life just long enough to record a message on her mobile phone. Told by way of interviews, transcripts of voice recordings by their family members, newspaper articles and webchats, this is the story of how the world races to explain what’s happened. Religious fanatics, conspiracy theorists, paranormal specialists and alien take over experts abound. Gripping and attention grabbing, this was the perfect read at a time when not much succeeded in distracting me.

the one that got away by simon wood

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY by Simon Wood. Zoe Sutton and her friend are abducted by a psychopath who hangs his victims from a hook, brands and whips them for perceived misdemeanours. Zoe manages to escape but cannot remember what happened, just that she abandoned her friend. Now working as a security guard in a shopping mall, she’s rebuilt a life of sorts, although it’s marked by guilt, erratic bouts of aggression and a determination to push friends and families away. When her abductor strikes again, Zoe is determined to track him down and find out the truth about the night which haunts her. This book seriously got under my skin with tension that builds from page one towards a brutal finale.

the hourglass factory by lucy ribchester

THE HOURGLASS FACTOR by Lucy Ribchester. The Suffragettes provide the backdrop for this unusual crime novel that involves an underground plot to blow up Parliament, corset fetishists, a trapeze artist, snake charmer and an ambitious young woman journalist called Frankie. Ribchester perfectly combines sinister and strange to great effect and I really enjoyed her clever plot, some laugh out loud moments and a good dose of feminist politics thrown in to boot.

blood on snow by jo nesbo

BLOOD ON SNOW by Joe Nesbo. This is not a patch on Nesbo’s other books. Centre stage is a contract killer who, though fascinating, falls far short of the glorious Harry Hole. He’s been ordered to take out his boss’s wife but ends up falling for her instead. There’s drug gangs, the stench of fish and  hiding out in coffins. But despite a double bluff I didn’t see coming, there’s a real absence of the wonderful twists, turns and blind alleys Nesbo usually does so well. It helped pass the time but only just…

the angel's game by carlos ruiz zafon

THE ANGEL’S GAME by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This Faustian novel is epic fable full of gothic horror. Zafon populates his twisted and surreal Barcelona landscape with menacing characters that are warped by their dark secrets. At its heart is frustrated novelist David Martin, whose craving for recognition sees him abandon any sense of morality and of reality. He weaves a tale worthy of Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, yet, unlike that narrator, Martin himself seems unsure what’s truth and what’s fiction. Clever, atmospheric and self aware, THE ANGEL’S GAME  is a book of two halves – the latter being where the plot really gets going but also, sadly, where some of what makes the first half so special gets lost. A tribute to the power of storytelling, with Dickens’ Great Expectations as a key reference point, it gets a little lost in all those winding dark Spanish streets and, for me at least, failed to completely live up to its promise.

Leave a comment

Filed under drama, fantasy, historical, sci-fi, thriller

WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler

we are all completely beside ourselves by karen joy fowler

I picked up a few books before settling into this – none seemed to grab my attention and I assumed it was because work was filling my every waking moment. But turns out I just needed to find the right book to get my reading mojo back and this was most definitely it. A book about the space where feelings, actions and who we are meet, it’s very special.

Rosemary is our narrator and she starts in the middle, as she was taught by parents anxious to give their daughter ways to curb her talkativeness. We get the beginning and the end too, as Rosemary gradually shares the incredible story of a brother and sister she hasn’t seen since she was a child, how memories are tricky things, and why she now barely speaks to anyone, especially not about her family. Quirky, hilarious and often terribly sad too, it tackles important themes such as what makes us human, the release that comes from forgiving ourselves as well as others,  and the nature of loneliness.

There’s a huge fact at the centre of Rosemary’s story that I am not going to reveal, as it blew me away when I read the words on the page, and I am really glad I’d not read any reviews beforehand that gave it away (or the back cover of the book). It makes this review difficult to write but I can tell you there’s also a cast of colourful characters, a ventriloquist’s dummy named Madame Defarge and one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever come across in literature.

Captivating, challenging and smart, this book took me completely outside of myself. Oh and if, like me, you have come across this writer in connection with THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB and have therefore avoided like the plague, don’t worry this is nothing like the girly drivel I assume that to be!

Leave a comment

Filed under comedy, drama

THE CARHULLAN ARMY by Sarah Hall

the carhullan army by sarah hall

So I am in France, lazing by the pool in the sunshine, happy, relaxed, on holiday and reading my Kindle. Then the words ‘data lost’ appear on my screen. I read on, thinking it’s part of the story (not entirely implausible given this is sci-fi of sorts) but then get confused that I have missed a key moment. Flick back. No I haven’t been reading too fast, there’s actually a bit missing from the book. OK I’ll keep going, I can figure it all out. Then I get to the climax of the book. An all out attack by feminist revolutionaries on the town that’s home to the dictatorship that’s outlawed them. And the same thing happens. I am speechless. Furious. Robbed. I have to drink a beer and jump in the pool before I feel better.

Ah first world problems eh?

That which I did read was poetic. Raw. Striking. Vital. Should the hand that rocks the cradle pick up the gun?

I will post again once I have done battle with Amazon, have a full copy, and can do justice to what I think may turn out to be a remarkable novel.

Leave a comment

Filed under drama, sci-fi