Category Archives: Great Books

Review: The Essex Serpent (2016) by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent is one of those novels that’s hard to ignore. It’s picked up dozens of awards and been sat in the window of every book shop, much like Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist from a few years ago – which I really wasn’t a fan of. Because of my disappointment of that novel, I was fairly hesitant when it came to this one. When you get a little excited for a book, it almost always ends up letting you down, right?

I’ll stop dancing around my opinion on The Essex Serpent and say that I did enjoy it. Sarah Perry’s latest novel, while a little overstuffed, is a good read. The central storyline is compelling, and while It does have a few too many characters, most of them are interesting. At its heart, the novel is about a married woman trying to discover who she really is after the death of her husband, whom she was forced to marry at a young age. Cora, along with her son Francis and her servant Martha, moves to the Essex countryside from London in search a mythical creature that’s rumoured to have been terrorising a nearby town. While hunting for the monster, Cora falls into company with the local’s church’s rector, William Ransome. As they try to prove and disprove the existence of the serpent, the two of them develop a close friendship.

Like I said, the central storyline is solid and Perry handles the central romance in an interesting way. Still, despite this, Cora’s struggles didn’t really feel like anything new to me. They felt very similar to those featured in the Victorian novels the author is clearly taking inspiration from… Though Cora doesn’t end up being half as interesting as the heroines in those books. In fairness, novels like Wuthering Heights and Ruth are an incredible high bar for The Essex Serpent to meet, but it just felt like Cora – as well as William – was missing a certain spark. Despite how well constructed the novel is, and how the heroine’s journey works well on paper, she just wasn’t someone I could get enthusiastic about.

The novel’s more interesting characters, in my opinion, hang around the fringes of the novel. Though I felt The Essex Serpent strayed too far from its central storyline at times – with there being a fairly long-winded B-plot about Cora’s servant trying to help those affected by London’s poverty – these side plots had some pretty fantastic character moments in them. Cora’s friend, London surgeon Luke Garrett, stole the show in many ways for me. The emotional journey that he and his friend George Spencer go through in the novel seemed much more original than Cora’s romance, focusing how powerful friendship can be in pulling people through tough times. Stella, William’s wife, was another stand-out character for me. Perry shows us her decline into illness in a gradual way, offering us her point of view along the way, and the way she does this is both original and moving.

Overall, The Essex Serpent is, in many ways, the book I expected it to be. It’s undoubtable good, but at times feels too structured and formulaic. Around its edges is where the novel’s best moments lie, where it appears less keen on being something that’ll be universally loved – basically book awards bait – and something a bit more weird and interesting. It’s a great novel that just feels a little bit lacking.

Review: The Stolen Child (2017) by Lisa Carey

Like a lot of the books I read these days, I went into The Stolen Child pretty much blind. I’ll admit that I was wooed by the colourful bee-coated cover, which seemed to suggest a book a little bit on the fantastical side. When I opened it up and found out it was about two sisters living in Ireland in the 1950s, I grew a little concerned… I began to worry that I’d picked up some super-dry historical novel rather than a fun and fantastical one.

After reading the book, it’s actually somewhere between the two. The Stolen Child mashes together two different ideas/tones that don’t seem like they would fit together – historical and fantasy – and makes them work.

St. Brigid’s Island is a remote settlement off the coast of Ireland, being home to a small community. There’s no electricity there, no harbour – making it incredibly hard for boats to visit – and no real form of communication with the outside world. One day an American woman named Brigid comes to the island with the intention of living there, much to the suspicion of the island’s inhabitants. They are hesitant to take her in, the wary and lonely Emer especially. It soon becomes clear that she has come to the island to find a deep and magical secret kept hidden by its residents…

The Stolen Child is a slow novel, but it puts a lot of time into building up its characters. It always puts its characters before its magical elements, which is something I really appreciate… In fact, it doesn’t even bother to introduce the more fantastical elements of its story until the main characters are all fully formed. What I’m trying to get at is, basically, with most fantasy novels it feels like it’s the gimmick or the fantastical premise that comes first. With The Stolen Child it definitely feels like Carey came up with the characters first.

And there are a lot of strong characters here, Brigid and Emer in particular; the whole novel hinges on their relationship. Carey does a wonderful job of developing their relationship across the novel – with them flip flopping between friends and enemies a couple of times – always keeping it realistic. For example, when they fall out you can understand the argument from both sides and empathise with both of the characters. When conflict comes up in the novel, it’s rarely because of a clear villainous figure, it’s normally because of generally good people having different views.

I don’t want to spoil how the novel develops, but Carey does take things in a surprising direction that, at the same time, feels true to the characters she’s created. In terms of complaints with this novel, there were only a few things I didn’t like. At times it moves at a snail’s pace, being almost bloated with flashbacks, which can get a little tedious. The beginning in particular is a bit too slow. Secondly, there are a few characters I wish Carey had made a bit more three-dimensional. Though there are some incredibly well developed female characters in The Stolen Child, there aren’t really any male characters who gain much more of a personality than being a ‘drunk and abusive husband’.

This is a historical novel primarily and a fantastical one secondarily. And that’s not a bad thing. Though it does get slightly dull in a couple of places, The Stolen Child has a lot going for it and is definitely worth your time.

Review: The Hanging Tree (2016) by Ben Aaronovitch

Man, isn’t the Peter Grant series great? The Hanging Tree is the sixth book in the series (meaning that you have to get through five other books before you can read it) and potentially the best one. Featuring several books’ worth of pay-off, if you’re a fan of Peter Grant then you should definitely give it a read.

The book focuses on the investigation of a young girl’s death, who is believed to have taken some questionable pills at a party. As the case picks up in becomes clear that there are some magical elements involved it… causing Peter Grant to get involved. He soon discovers that this seemingly small incident is tied to an even bigger case, relating to a practitioner/criminal he’s been chasing for a long time: The Faceless Man.

The story picks up pretty much where the fourth book Broken Homes left off (the fifth one, Foxglove Summer, having taken a bit of a breather from the series’ overall story) with Grant slowly closing in on London’s most dangerous practitioner. I can’t talk too much about where the story picks up (in case there are any readers who haven’t read any of the books in the series yet), but trust me when I say that it does a great job of building on the world that Ben Aaronovitch has built. A lot of old characters return, being drawn back into the story, and a few great new ones are introduced.

Probably the main reason why The Hanging Tree works so well is that it acts as a major turning point for the novel. Like I said, it features several books’ worth of pay-off – feeling like a reward for reading some of the series’ lesser books (mainly Broken Homes). As the sort of person who normally reads standalone novels, I have to admit that there’s nothing quite like a series book like this one that really delivers on everything you hoped it would.

And luckily The Hanging Tree also features Aaronovitch’s usual great writing. It’s not the sort of writing that’s beautiful – there aren’t many great bits of imagery or flowery writing – but the kind that inhibits its protagonist’s voice incredibly well. Heck, all of the characters’ voices. By this stage in the series all of the characters feel well-rounded enough that it’s just fun to watch them bounce off each other (Sahra Guuleed the ‘Muslim ninja’ is a particular highlight). Basically, the writing style is consistent with the books that came before it and that’s a very good thing!

If you love the other books in the series, then you’re guaranteed to love this one. Aaronovitch doesn’t skimp out on giving fans what they want, making for a really rewarding read. And if you haven’t read any Peter Grant books a read before, then, well, give Rivers of London a go! Even if urban fantasy isn’t your sort of thing, you’re sure to find something to enjoy in it.

Review: This Census-Taker (2016) by China Miéville

As I’ve noted before, I normally either love or hate a China Miéville book.  They either suck me up like few other authors’ books do, or I find them overstuffed and dull. This Census-Taker, Miéville’s new novella, falls somewhere in the middle (leaning more towards the love side). It doesn’t reach the heights of his greatest books (like The Scar and The City and the City) but it definitely isn’t a slog. In fact, if anything, I wish it was longer.

Focusing on a boy who lives with his parents on a remote hilltop, This Census-Taker tells a story of loss with a magical realism edge to it. The boy’s mother and father both have mysterious pasts and mysterious talents – his father, for example, is able to craft magical keys that do much more than open doors… But when a traumatic incident tears his home apart, the boy is forced to reach into the wider world for help.

It’s difficult to say too much about this book without giving too much of it away. Miéville is an author I normally associate with huge lengthy novels, and This Census-Taker is easily one of his shortest works (it is a novella, after all). It’s short enough that even describing the opening of the book feels like a spoiler… So I’ll keep things vague. Though the book is fantasy based, it is so on a smaller scale than most of Miéville’s stories. It’s packed with a bunch of weird ideas – such as a mysterious hole where the boy’s family throw their rubbish – enough to probably fill a novel.

There’s a lot of characters as well, but most of them don’t get a lot of page time – such as the titular census taker. This is something that works to the book’s advantage in some ways… Because of the short length, Miéville is able to keep things vague and mysterious. Just as we’re getting to know the world it’s snatched away from us, creating a need to savour the few details that we’re given. Because each idea and character is addressed fairly briefly, none of them stick around long enough to become tedious or dull. (In this sense it’s the complete opposite of Kraken.)

But… while this may be one of the novel’s strengths, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was its biggest weakness as well. The story feels like its only getting started when it draws to a close. Though I’m sure the author envisioned This Census-Taker as a novella, it certainly has an abrupt feel to it. It feels as though, I dunno, the author gets bored of the world before the reader does. Some parts of the novella feel well rounded and finished, but others do not. There’s just too many loose ends for my liking – too many things set up that don’t go anywhere.

But like I said, what’s here is solid – though perhaps not worth the price of admission. Maybe he wrote the story as a novella simply to ensure that the reader is left wanting more…? But then again, I was left wanting more with Perdido Street Station and that was over 800 pages long.

Review: No Country for Old Men (2005) by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy… Man, does the guy know how to tell a story. I was pretty impressed with his bleak representation of the apocalypse in The Road, but I think No Country for Old Men might be even better. It’s similarly bleak and similarly difficult to read to begin with – who needs speech marks? – but once you get into it, it’s difficult to get out.

At its core, the plot of No Country for Old Men is pretty simple; Llewelyn Moss, a mostly normal guy, decides to take some money that belongs to some very dangerous people, and, as a result, gets an incredibly ruthless murderer on his tail. A game of cat and Moss (ha!) plays out across the country while Ed Bell, a sheriff close to retirement, tries to find Llewelyn before anyone else does.

McCarthy rarely strays from the cat and mouse plot, and the novel is mainly impressive due to how well he tells it. No Country for Old Men demonstrates that a great story doesn’t need a big complicated plot, and in fact a simple one told well is frequently more powerful. The characters are fleshed out through small moments, and McCarthy avoids exposition whenever necessary.

For example, Chigurh, the man hunting down Llewelyn, has no past as far as the novel is concerned. McCarthy doesn’t try to explain the monster he’s created by giving him a traumatic backstory or anything – he’s just a ruthless killer. While this may suggest that he’s a pretty two-dimensional character, he really isn’t… Chigurh remains a mystery throughout the novel, following his own codes – sometimes flipping a coin to decide whether he should kill someone or not – but that’s what makes him so compelling. The same with Llewelyn. Why he becomes so committed to getting away with the money is left up to the reader. McCarthy understands that some things we do, and some of the ways we act, can’t really be explained. Too many stories are afraid to leave the reader in the dark a little bit.

And as the characters feel real, so does the way that the plot plays out. I won’t spoil anything, but No Country for Old Men is fantastic in the way that it just shuns narrative conventions. It doesn’t really have a three-act structure as such, and at times there’s not really a clear protagonist. These characters feel like real people reacting to things in the same way that real people would, and as a result it rarely feels like the author is manipulating them to create a particular situation or moment. Everything plays out realistically and still manages to remain interesting.

A common complaint about McCarthy is his minimalistic writing style, and I’ll admit that I had some trouble getting along with it at the beginning. With there being no speech marks, it was difficult to tell when someone was speaking at times… though only at first. After a few pages the story quickly sucked me in, and I found the lack of speech marks did nothing more than break down the barrier between the reader and the story. They’re just another signifier that you’re reading a book, and by McCarthy ditching them, it makes it easier to really be consumed by the story.

No Country for Old Men is just one of those books that reaffirms why I love novels so much. It’s the sort of book that can be enjoyed on two levels. You can just read it and enjoy it for the terrific story, or, if you want to, you can dig deeply into the characters and explore the novel’s themes. It’s both incredibly simplistic and incredibly complicated at the same time. And unlike most clever books (like a few of the ones I’ve reviewed recently) it doesn’t seem like it’s trying to be clever – it doesn’t rub its cleverness in the reader’s face. It just reads as being effortlessly damn good.

Review: Back to Moscow (2016) by Guillermo Erades

Guillermo Erades’ debut novel has a lot of sides to it – it’s about a lot of things. It’s about the changed position of Russia after the fall of communism in the country; it’s about classic Russian literature; it’s about subverting literary conventions… Most of all though, it’s about growing up and entering adulthood. At heart it’s a classic coming-of-age story.

Martin, the protagonist, isn’t a likeable character – but he isn’t supposed to be. An English exchange student living in Moscow, he spends all of his nights out at bars and clubs with his expat friends trying to pull. Throughout the novel we see him have plenty of relationships, treating only a fraction of the women he sleeps with well. He’s selfish and self-centred – even if he seems to be oblivious to it almost all of the time.

And it’s this obliviousness, really, that fuels the novel. Erades examines a lot of cultural issues surrounding Russia during the time that Back to Moscow is set – primarily the position of women in the country – but filters them through the mostly oblivious gaze of Martin. As an Englishman, everything comes easy to him in Russia; he can get a high paying, low effort job with easy, he can spend his days doing nothing and he can blag away the university work he isn’t doing with little consequence. But it’s the Russian women he meets that have tough lives – something he doesn’t seem to understand.

His ex-long-term girlfriend, Lena, for example, is forced to get involved with prostitution in order to get to where she wants in life. As she explains to him, there are very few ways for a Russian woman in Moscow to earn enough money to have savings. An employer that is likely to pay an English man incredibly well is also likely to pay a Russian woman incredibly poorly. Martin can’t understand why Lena does what she does, because despite the fact that they live in the same city, their experiences of it are so completely different.

There’s a lot to Back to Moscow – too much to cover. It is also really heavily interested in Russian novels and short stories – Chekov in particular – and their structures and morals. It also gives an incredible amount of insight into a culture I must admit I didn’t have much interest in before. This is one of those novels that resists being analysed in a straightforward way; there are too many sides to it – it’s the sort of book that keeps you thinking. Oh, and it’s also pushed me to get into Russian literature. I’ve had a Chekov short story collection sat around for ages, and now I’m finally going to give it a read.

I highly recommend this book, not just for its interesting characters, but for all the interesting things it talks about. In addition to being a great novel, it’s also a great gateway into Russian culture and literature.

Review: Foxlowe (2016) by Eleanor Wasserberg

Eleanor Wasserberg’s debut is an odd novel – but in a good way. It focuses on a family that lives in a huge country estate named Foxlowe; the ‘family’ is made up of people from all walks of life, all of them having ended up at Foxlowe for different reasons. Unlike most of the house’s residents, Green was born at Foxlowe and knows no other life. With her two childhood friends, Blue and Toby, Green tries to survive as the only world she’s ever known begins to fall apart.

Going into Foxlowe completely blind, I thought the setting was post-apocalyptic at first. The novel has a claustrophobic feel to it – only giving the reader brief glimpses of the world beyond Foxlowe. Like Green, and many of the other residents of Foxlowe, we aren’t allowed to venture any further than the moors that surround the house.

However, rather than being an apocalypse novel, Foxlowe is a cult novel. The residents do believe themselves to be living in a post-apocalyptic world though – one taken over by an all-encompassing evil referred to only as the Bad – and Foxlowe is seen as the only haven. The benefit of the story being told from Green’s perspective, someone who knows no other life, is that it allows the author to make the cult’s lives seem normal and understandable. There’s something appealing about the world that Green romanticises so deeply.

But if Wasserberg uses the novel’s first half to romanticise cult life, illustrating the positive ideas it promotes such as community, then she uses the second half to examine it with brutal reality. Though there are some flashes of darkness in Foxlowe’s first half, the novel’s latter half is much harsher, focusing on the years after the cult is dismantled and examining the long-term negative effects it has on Green’s life.

Wasserberg constructs the world of Foxlowe really well, with the story unfolding in a slow fashion. A lot of time is spent constructing the character of Foxlowe itself – and the house forms a pretty integral part of the story. As we experience the characters’ day to day lives, we slowly become familiar with the building’s many different rooms – and many different secrets. And when the novel decides to finally leave the house behind, it has a really disorientating effect.

Many of Foxlowe’s characters are well developed too, but there are quite a few central members of the cult who we don’t really get to know. Characters like Dylan, Pet, Egg and even Blue – who is pretty central to the plot – are only illustrated with broad strokes. The other main issue I had with the novel, which I’ll stay vague about for spoiler reasons, was the narrative style used by the author in the second half. Wasserberg skips over a huge chunk of the story before returning to it right at the end of novel, just to end Foxlowe on a big reveal. Characters talk about this big moment very vaguely in the novel’s second half, to keep it a secret from the reader, and it ends up feeling like a cheap move. Besides, it becomes pretty obvious what the big moment is far before Wasserberg shows us it at the end of the novel.

But despite these problems, Foxlowe is a great debut. Its fascinating focus definitely helps it to stand out from the crowd.