Historical Fiction: The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Essex Serpent has the distinction of being one of the most unusual novels I’ve ever come across, and I’ve been reading them for a long time. The critical reviews for it are stellar. The language is eloquent and frequently lyrical, reminiscent at times of Dickens, Austen, Hardy, and G. Eliot. The characters, though ordinary, are thrumming with life, and each represents a different aspect of English life in late Victorian times. Its narrative is an internal one, as it hops among their minds and their separate reactions to the same incident. Much of it is sad, yet it escapes being dismal. Into the mix, the author deftly inserts social and existential issues, which are just as relevant today as they were in the book’s own time frame. But the plot, that all important feature in any work of fiction, is skeletal.

While I savored all the good things about The Essex Serpent, I kept wishing something would happen. When two momentous somethings finally did, they played out in such an understated fashion that their impact was all but blunted. The conclusion, though not surprising, left me wondering if the author was considering a sequel. If so, I’m not sure if I’d choose to read it. But I’m glad I read this one, if only to discover what influenced all the stellar reviews.

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It’s a Mystery: The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

The Lost Book of the Grail

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve gotta say, rarely have I come across a book so expressly tailored to my own particular interests. Put together a collection of ancient manuscripts,  a medieval English cathedral, the long lost relics of a saint, a sacred spring, a mysterious code, King Arthur, the lore of the Holy Grail, and I’m hooked. Charlie Lovett has produced a cracking good tale set in Barchester, the fictional town invented by Anthony Trollope, with a suitably nerdy protagonist, Arthur Prescott, who teaches for a living but lives for the joys he discovers within the  all-but-deserted  cathedral library. He has his few close friends and an obsession with the Grail myth instilled by his grandfather, who believed the Grail is hidden somewhere within Barchester. Arthur’s existence is predictable and ordinary until an effervescent American scholar, Bethany Davis, breezes into his circumscribed world, charged with digitizing the contents of his beloved retreat. After a somewhat rocky beginning, they find common ground in their love of medieval history. Arthur is heartbroken when the dean announces that the manuscripts will have to be sold off to finance much needed cathedral repairs, and feels driven to find a way to save the beloved collection. Luckily, Bethany, a whiz of a researcher, throws herself into the quest, which plays out with

Although flashbacks can be annoying in a novel, author Lovett seamlessly blends them into the modern tale, via well researched sequences that vivify England’s tumultuous religious struggles while providing  grounding for the facts and legends that Arthur pursues. While some of his adventures contain humorous elements, others are more serious, as he searches not only for a “treasure” to save the library, but for something deeper in which to believe.

Engrossing, delightful, and heartening. And highly recommended.

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Folklore and Fantasy: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Our lives are shaped by our childhood impressions and experiences, and no one knows or expresses that truth better than Neil Gaiman. The protagonist in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an unnamed, middle aged Englishman, who returns to his rural roots to attend a funeral. On a whim, he drives to the site of his former home, now a housing development where the country roads have been paved over, all except foThe Ocean at the End of the Laner the rustic lane that leads down the hill to the Hempstock farm. Old Mrs. Hempstock sees him arrive, and as they talk, snippets of memory begin to float to the surface. The summer he was seven, he and Hempstock granddaughter Lettie became friends, and he came to realize that there was something timeless about this family. They can see and do things that he can’t quite understand. Perhaps the duck pond, as Lettie insists, really is a sort of ocean. One morning, following a suicide in the neighborhood, a dark power is unleashed, and he and Lettie must embark upon a quest to vanquish something unspeakably evil.

What sounds like a prosaic sort of fairy story when I summarize it is much, much more in the hands of Neil Gaiman, though it does retain the key elements of the classic fairy tale. Mr. Gaiman writes beautifully, making every word count, and he is a master at conveying a genuine sense of the wonders and fears of childhood. His characters, which are few, are memorable and real. The action in Ocean vacillates between idyllic peace and heart stopping terror. Parents cannot always be counted on, and sometimes innocent mistakes bring serious consequences.There are omens (a fish that swallowed a sixpence), symbols (the number 3 is important), archetypes, and magic, but there is also a firm grounding in the ordinary. Emotionally powerful, mesmerizing, and highly recommended.

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Thanksgiving Memories: The Cornucopia

Derived from the Latin Cornu = horn, Copia = abundance.

The cornucopia is a horn-shaped container overflowing with fruit, nuts, and vegetables. Its origin as a symbol of abundance comes from Greek mythology. Zeus was raised on goat’s milk by Amalthea. In gratitude, he gave her a goat’s horn that had the poser to grant the wishes of whoever possessed it. Zeus also set the image of a goat into the night sky, as the constellation Capricorn. Since the 5th century BCE, gods and goddesses, especially Fortuna, goddess of luck and fate, would be depicted carrying a cornucopia.

Today the “Horn of Plenty” is a symbol of the abundance of the harvest, most often associated in America with the Thanksgiving holiday. No longer is it a genuine goat’s horn, but rather a large, cone-shaped wicker basket. Though the material may have changed, the meaning of the cornucopia has persisted throughout the centuries, and many a horn of plenty graces the center of the Thanksgiving dinner table.



Wishing you and your family

all the blessings of Thanksgiving

as you gather together to

celebrate and give thanks.




Article on the history of the wishbone tradition:


Classic Lit: Puck of Pook’s Hill, by Rudyard Kipling

4.0 out of 5 stars Factual and fanciful

With all the renewed interest in fantasy over the past decade, the 102 year old historical fantasy, Puck of Pook’s Hill, deserves consideration. Two early 20th century children, living in Pevensey, England, have a chance encounter with the legendary Puck, who undertakes to bring them a series of first hand accounts of the history of their region. Puck introduces them to eye witnesses to such events as the Norman Conquest, the waning of the Roman occupation, and the dissolution of the monasteries. As the historic individuals relate their tales, they are suitable impressed with the children’s abilities to resolve some of the mysteries that were not understood in their times. The selections of Kipling’s poetry that accompany each chapter are related thematically, and pleasingly rhythmic. Recommended for grade level 4 and up through adults.

( I’m happy to be able to say that a few years back I acquired the first edition shown in the photo. )

Historical Novels: Over Sea, Under Stone

Magical, mythical, and more than 40 years before Harry

The intro to Susan Cooper’s justly famous Dark is Rising series, Over Sea sets up the saga beautifully. Though published as children’s literature, it is much more than just an amusing kiddie story. Deftly intertwining history, mythology (especially Celtic and British), adventure, and magic, Over Sea appears based upon two ancient myths, that of the kingly hero and that of the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Cooper’s writing is ageless and timeless. Her plot is tight, her characters engaging, her dialogue real. Who are the Drew kids? How did they become enmeshed in this struggle between the light and the dark? Who are friends and who are enemies? The account of Bartholmew’s bewildering and dangerous experience in the village carnival, with its ancient roots, mixture of menace and delight, and suspension of reality, is particularly well presented. This is a book that can be read and enjoyed on multiple levels, recommended for adults who love folklore as well as children looking for a fun, intriguing adventure.