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: Even If It Kills Her, by Kate White

Even If It Kills Her (Bailey Weggins Mystery, #7)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Crime writer/investigator Bailey Weggins is signing copies of her latest true-crime book when who should appear but a friend from college, Jillian Lowe, who dropped out following the brutal murder of her family. Bailey’s rather non-plussed, feeling guilty because she failed to provide support to or even maintain contact with Jillian 16 years ago, so when she’s asked for a favor, she feels obligated to grant it. In a nutshell, the man now serving time for the murders may be exonerated due to new and exculpatory DNA evidence, and, since the cops aren’t interested in reopening the case, Jillian hopes Bailey will assist her in identifying the true killer.

Within hours of their arrival in the small Berkshires town where the Lowes made their home, local animosity toward the two women becomes apparent. Bailey sets up a few interviews with people who knew the family when the tragedy occurred; few of them are cooperative. One of the administtra who worked at the high school that Jillian and her sister attended is more forthcoming, providing Bailey with possible leads, but less than a day later, she is killed in what appears to be a staged burglary at her home. The police chief and the assistant DA, from whom Bailey seeks support, warn her off and threaten her. When Bailey herself is assaulted, she and Jillian are afraid that the real murderer is still in the locality and knows what they are about.

There are some surprises in this account, the most effective of them an graphic attack by a vicious dog, which White describes with skill. Although it becomes painfully clear that Bailey is playing with fire, she remains determined to discover the truth. Some of her choices are nothing short of foolhardy. Not even the strenuous objections of her boyfriend, who fears she will also die, deter her. The subplot that focuses on their currently shaky relationship lends some human interest to the storyline, as does the revelation of some Lowe family secrets, the biggest of which I did not foresee. In spite of all the danger, most of the novel lacks the element of actual suspense, however, and I never doubted that Bailey would emerge battered but victorious.

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It’s a Mystery: Under a Dark Sky, by Lori Rader-Day

Under a Dark Sky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Still reeling from her husband’s death nine months earlier, Eden Wallace finds among his papers a reservation for the lodge at Michigan’s Dark Sky Park, a star gazing resort, scheduled for what would have been their wedding anniversary. Eden is petrified by darkness, but decides to face her fears by keeping the reservation and facing up to them at the park. She’s dismayed and disheartened from the moment she arrives and discovers that the accommodation is comprised of individual suites with shared public spaces. A mini college reunion has also been booked, by a 6-member coterie of former students seeking to rekindle their once-close friendships. They’re no happier than Eden is about the situation, and while they must accept her, they treat her with undisguised hostility. Eden chooses to stay overnight and depart for home early the next morning. Sounds like a plan, until, in the middle of the night, she is awakened by screams emanating from the kitchen. One of the men is lying dead on the floor with a screwdriver protruding from his neck. Now, no one is free to leave.

This is a small town with a small police force inexperienced in investigating murder. They are suspicious of all of the lodge’s residents, who are all suspicious of one another. During the course of their inquiries, it will become apparent that all of them have their own deep, disturbing secrets, Eden included. Watching the cat and mouse game unfold provides surprises for the reader and for the characters themselves. This is an intriguing mystery, narrated solely in first person by Eden, who arrived overwrought and grows ever more so as the tension ratchets up. Each character, whether police or suspects, are finely drawn, believable in their actions and reactions, with personalities all their own, and this is the strength of this novel. The suspects in particular must come to terms with their pasts, which, of course, some accomplish better than others. Parts of the narrative grow repetitive and verge on hysteria, and probably could have been edited down a bit, but otherwise, this is a reasonably tight, well crafted plot that holds attention right to its ending.

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It’s a Mystery: The Secret, Book, and Scone Society, by Ellery Adams

The Secret, Book, & Scone Society (Secret, Book, & Scone Society #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although it may not be official, ever since Fried Green Tomatoes, circa 1991, became a hit book and movie, a growing sub genre under the heading “cozy mysteries” appears to have developed. Most of these books sport catchy and cutesy titles (Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society et al), revolve around a reasonably complex local mystery, and feature small teams of flawed but strong and charming women who are determined to set things right. Sometimes a touch of magical realism is present to spice up the plot. The Secret, Book, and Scone Society, by Ellery Adams, fits squarely into this category.

The title derives from the businesses and past histories of four women protagonists living in Miracle, North Carolina, all of whom are trying to forget painful pasts and get on with their lives as best they can. Although they patronize each other’s shops, they don’t really bond until a man, a newcomer to town who briefly crosses paths with them, winds up dead on the town’s railroad tracks. Was he murdered, did he jump, or was he pushed? This questions bothers them as individuals, and in the immediate aftermath of the death, they decide to band together to discover, or uncover, the truth. During this process, the back story of each woman emerges as they develop trust, understanding, and support for each other. The mystery, involving murder and fraud, serves as the vehicle through which Ellery Adams develops her central characters, who become relatable and loveable in spite of, and because of their all too human flaws. While ancillary characters do lean toward the stereotypical, and the mystery is not all that difficult to solve, the main quartet and the actions they take are more than strong enough to maintain the interest of readers to the end.

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It’s a Mystery: The Ice Princess, by Camilla Lackberg

The Ice Princess (Patrik Hedström, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Modern Noir is not my favorite genre. Although mysteries in this category generally tell compelling stories, they do so in a way that can be disturbing. It’s not the darkness so much as the graphic brutality that bothers me, but if the writing is good enough, I’ll stick with it and skim over the worst of the details. Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess is dark and cold, in keeping with Nordic noir, but considerably less gruesome than many.

Though billed as a mystery, this novel is character rather than plot driven. The police, of course, make an early appearance, but the book’s protagonist is definitely Erica Falck, a biographer who has returned to her childhood home in Fjällbacka, Sweden for the funeral of her parents. Erica stays on to clear up her parents affairs and work on her overdue manuscript in a quiet place, and, as happens to many during the grieving process, begins to reevaluate her own life choices. But her plans are soon disrupted when her childhood friend, the beautiful Alex, is found frozen solid in her  bathtub with slashed wrists. Alex’s family requests that Erica write a piece in memory of their daughter’s life, and she begins by interviewing Alex’s friends. As new information and old memories are stirred up, Erica cannot believe that Alex died by her own hand. When the detective on the case turns out to be Patrik Hedstrom, another school chum, they combine their efforts to discover the truth.

The procedural part of the plot, until the final few chapters, is submerged in a tangle of sub-stories. These include smaller mysteries: why is Erica’s married sister no longer the free spirit she was as a girl? Why did Alex’s family abruptly leave town when the girls were in high school. What happened to the son of Fjallbacka’s wealthiest family abruptly disappear? These threads are intriguing, but there were far too many pages devoted to detailing a personal relationship that threatened to turn a murder mystery into a romance novel. The solution to the mystery was one that readers – at least this reader – could not have hypothesized because some missing clues. Nevertheless, the characters and setting in The Ice Princess were interesting enough to prompt me to try the next book in the series, The Preacher.

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The Edinburgh Witches Well

Back in June, I came across an interesting article on Atlas Obscura, featuring a little noticed spot, near the entrance to the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, where there stands a small drinking fountain. Between the 15th and 18th centuries,  hundreds of women, accused of witchcraft, were executed on this spot, close to what is now Ramsay Garden. Scotland’s King James VI was a devoted persecutor of witches, and during the satanic panic that gripped Europe during that time span, anyone could be accused of using dark magic. Most were women, though regardless of gender all were denied proper trials and subjected to burning at the stake, and in the later years, to hanging.

By 1894, the forward thinking philanthropist, Sir Philip Geddes, commissioned John Duncan to design a small fountain to memorialize the victims.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The small plaque explains the major design elements. Duncan was an admirer of Celtic art and legend, interests that are reflected in his use of dualism to highlight the opposites of good and evil and to show that every story has two sides. features a bronze relief of witches’ heads entangled by a snake, uses dualism to highlight the balance between good and evil and that each story has two sides. The relief displays two heads representing the accused.  There is the image of a Foxglove plant from the centre of which is a coiled snake intertwined around the head of Aesculapius, The God of Medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the Goddess of Health. The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff known as a caduceus, remains a symbol of medicine today. Hygeia as the personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation represents hygiene. The Foxglove plant used medicinally can also be poisonous depending on dosage; and the image of the serpent imbued with wisdom is also acknowledged as evil. The symbolism of all represents good and evil. The years 1479 and 1722 are shown at upper left and bottom right, and two bolts in the upper corners show the Wiccan symbols of air and water. The hole below the serpent’s head dispensed water.

The trough is sculpted on three sides. The font displays flora with roots beneath the earth and branches above. The left panel depicts the evil eye with frowning eyes and nose; the words ‘the evil eye’ are written below. The right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl with the words ‘hands of’ written above the bowl and ‘healing’ written below.

I love symbolism in art and am very glad this monument is there to commemorate the terrible scourge of the witchcraft delusion. I do wish, however, that the plaque more explicitly condemned what happened there to all those innocent victims.  I also wish that I’d known about the fountain when we visited Edinburgh several years back.

 

 

It’s a Mystery: The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney

The Girl Before

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recently, it’s become increasingly difficult to find new original novels, what with so many authors seeking to capitalize on the popularity of such bestsellers as Fifty Shades of Gray, Gone Girl, and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and also the dystopian/YA/vampire market. Some book sources are inventing names for new genres. I don’t know about that, but it’s pretty easy to recognize piggy backing for popularity when you see it. Some of the writers doing that are Ruth Ware and B. A. Paris, both of whom I’ve read and enjoyed, and perhaps if their  books had been published first, they’d be the bestsellers. The same can be said of The Girl Before, by J. P. Delaney, but to give credit where it’s due, Delaney has added some twists of her own.

This book focuses upon two women who rented One Folgate Street, an avant-garde, architectural prize winning house in London going for a ridiculously reasonable rent. Emma is the first tenant, the “girl before”, whose occupancy ended with a fatal fall down the interior stone stairs. Her successor is Jane, who is struggling to find her equilibrium following a stillbirth. It’s a mystery why either of them would even consider moving to a place whose creepy, obsessive owner, architect Edward Monkford, presents them with a manual containing hundreds of  restrictions (just the two about no rugs and no books would have killed the deal for me) and has a computerized, visual monitoring system called “housekeeper” that controls the home’s every system and ensures the tenant’s compliance.  The book’s other mystery concerns Emma’s death; when Jane learns about she becomes determined to discover what happened and why. That task is complicated by the steamy affair she and the kinky Edward are conducting.

Though loaded with time-honored  tropes and other derivatives (that creepy “housekeeper”, an owner reputed to have caused the death of his own wife and child, the fact that both Emma and Jane are ringers for the dead wife), this book has its appeal. The atmosphere is decidedly eerie, and the  house, austere as it is, nevertheless provides some clues, as does Emma’s rejected former boyfriend.  Jane’s behavior is often foolhardy, but if you can accept that, the psychological implications of all that goes on are fascinating, as is the surprise that abruptly pops up at the very end. The characters are strange and Edward in particular is odious, but their story is weirdly compelling.