If last month was a nonfiction extravaganza, this was a month for catching up with new release reviews. I hope you will check out these fantastic offerings from some of my favorite publishers.
Ironically, all these “new” books were actually previously published, either recently in the UK, or many years ago and now getting a reissue. I notice that I don’t read much of-the-moment contemporary fiction at all … thus my discussion question for this month. Do you have any favorites in this genre to recommend? I’ve received some great suggestions already, but I am always up for more!
Oh oak tree, how they have pruned you.
Now you stand odd and strangely shaped!
You were hacked a hundred times
until you had nothing left but spite and will!
I am like you, so many insults and humiliations
could not shatter my link with life.
And every day I raise my head
beyond countless insults toward new light.
What in me was once gentle, sweet, and tender
this world has ridiculed to death.
But my true self cannot be murdered.
I am at peace and reconciled.
I grow new leaves with patience
from branches hacked a hundred times.
In spite of all the pain and sorrow
I’m still in love with this mad, mad world.
I think of myself as an eclectic reader. In the last few months I’ve read fiction, historical fiction, classics, children’s books, YA, fantasy, mysteries, memoirs, diaries, romance, science fiction, nonfiction about history, science, and social issues, biographies, and more.
What I have NOT read, though, is contemporary fiction — by which I mean realistic fiction written in the last two decades or so, and set more or less contemporaneous with its writing; it should also spend most of the story in the “present” and not in the past of its characters or their relatives. The most recent example that I can find is The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, which I read last October (and found rather ho-hum). Yet this is a genre that many people seem most excited about, including several bloggers I follow. I respect their enthusiasm, and in theory have nothing against the books they’re reading, but for some reason everything else seems to take priority on my TBR list.
Why is this? Do I prefer worlds of fantasy, or imaginative ventures into the past, to novels that explore the present day and time? Do I have something against contemporary life?
There’s something in that, actually — ever since my obsessive early reading of the Oz and Narnia books, books have been for me a gateway into another world, one that seems richer, more colorful, more exciting than my own. Even though I grew up to love realistic fiction just as much, I still gravitated to nineteenth century novels, historical fiction, and other books that took me to a place or time removed from my daily life.
Now, I know that there are excellent contemporary writers who use the magic of words to illuminate the depth and richness that does lurk hidden in our everyday world. I’m not intentionally an escapist reader. But for me, it takes a bit more effort to seek out those authors and books, and I’m not one to read the latest bestseller just because it’s on everyone’s lips. Sometimes I like to give a bit of time for things to settle, for worth to prove itself beyond the momentary hype. But then, all too often, I forget about those books and never get around to them.
I’m not looking to change my reading habits in any extreme way; I don’t feel apologetic about preferring the books I generally tend to enjoy. However, I think I would do well to push myself a little bit, to try out some titles that otherwise I might overlook or set aside. I might just discover something I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.
To that end, I’d love some help from you. What contemporary fiction would you advise me to put at the top of my list? I shall undertake to try at least three or four of your suggestions.
Perhaps because the nineteenth century saw the rise of the novel as a literary form, giving us an unprecedented number of imagined narratives about daily life and relationships, there’s a particular fascination in trying to go “behind the curtain” of the period and discern what the Victorians did NOT say in their fiction. Due to societal expectations and conventions, there were many things they could not talk about directly (at least in English — perhaps Continental fiction was more frank). What would Victorian novelists write if this secret history could be revealed, and what would we learn about their real thoughts and feelings?
In more recent times, this question has given rise to compelling novels by the likes of John Fowles, A.S. Byatt, and Sarah Waters, among others. They try to embody aspects of the narrative voice of a bygone age, while retaining a modern sensibility that illuminates the past in a new light. A new entry in this seductive sub-genre is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, which takes on the clash of science, faith, and superstition that erupted in the wake of Darwin’s discoveries. Symbol and focus of this cultural turmoil is the mysterious Essex Serpent, which had reputedly been sighted in a seaside town centuries ago, and now seems to be appearing again. Is it a judgment? A scientific marvel? A relic from ancient times? A supernatural warning, or wonder? Or something far more banal and ordinary, given fantastic clothing by the ever-active human imagination?
This is a novel of many characters, switching back and forth between different points of view: a young widow with an abusive past and a yen for paleontology; her son, who baffles her with his strange rituals and emotional distance; their working-class radical nurse-companion; a twisted genius of a surgeon; his less-brilliant, but extremely kind friend; a brisk country vicar struggling to conquer superstition in his parish and unholy longings in himself; his tubercular wife, beset by visions; and many others.
The premise sounded irresistible to me, yet even though The Essex Serpent had all the ingredients for a book I ought to love, I had a hard time warming to it somehow. Perhaps this was partly because the constant switching of perspective also made it hard for me to settle into the story. Certain threads and relationships were not developed as much as I would have liked, as the zigzagging plot kept dropping one to pick up another. I remained oddly distant from the characters, and sometimes had the sensation of being told rather than shown about their characteristics; they felt intellectually constructed out of era-appropriate ingredients (paleontology, advances in medical science, religious doubt, consumption, sexual repression, etc.) rather than spontaneously living.
Unsettling is definitely what The Essex Serpent is all about, though, so perhaps this is an appropriate effect. And at the end, suddenly, the characters came together in a way that surprised me, bringing them to life more vividly. If the book had gone on from there for another hundred pages or so, I might have felt more connected to it.
I don’t know why the alchemy of this book did not quite work for me, and you may have a completely different reaction. I hope you will read it to find out for yourself, and please let me know what you thought.
Thanks to TLC Book Tours and HarperCollins for the opportunity to review this book. For more information, visit the tour page or click on the links below.
Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979. Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Folio Prize. She lives in Norwich. The Essex Serpent is her American debut.
Find out more about Sarah at her website, and connect with her on Twitter.
I always find something I want to read in the Candlewick catalog, and among their spring/summer releases my eye was caught by three books that all turned out to have been previously published in the UK (Candlewick is part of the UK-based Walker Book Group). In other ways, though, they were quite different — not all to my taste, but they might be to yours!
The first one I picked up was Sophie Someone by Hayley Long. Here we have a contemporary tale about a fourteen-year-old girl trying to figure out what’s happened to her family, why they left England for Belgium, what her real name is, and many other mysteries, all wrapped up in Sophie’s “special language” which both mirrors her confusion and masks her real pain and anxiety. This involves switching out words for other similar words, in a way that seems baffling at first but soon becomes surprisingly simple to follow.
My first reaction was that this was an fascinating example of how our minds can create wholeness out of fragmentary parts, a confirmation that language is built of meaning, not of words. However, after a while I found myself wishing that Long had done something more with this device, had caused it to develop or transform in some way; as it was, it was like reading a rather ordinary story written in code, the novelty of which soon wore off. I think there’s a chance that young readers will be intrigued and amused by Sophie’s style and by the playful typography, and this might be enough for some, but I was left wanting more. (I was reminded of the books of Ellen Raskin … time for some rereading.)
Next I sampled Maid of the King’s Court by Lucy Worsley, a historical novel by the curator of the Historic Royal Palaces in London. For one so steeped in the history of Hampton Court and other sites, it must be endlessly tempting to weave one’s knowledge of the everyday details of Elizabethan life into an exciting narrative. Worsley’s knowledge and love of the era was clear, but its transformation into fictional form did not quite work for me.
I had a hard time connecting with her protagonist, a fictional Elizabeth whose destiny becomes intertwined with real-life figures including the notorious Catherine Howard, and of course King Henry VIII. Elizabeth talked and acted like a modern teenager, and in general the tone was indistinguishable from a contemporary YA romance. This may make history spring to life for some readers, but it’s not my style at all. I would still be interested to see Worsley in her capacity as a TV documentary host, though, or maybe read some of her non-fiction, to see how she presents this kind of material in a different context.
Fortunately, I enjoyed my third selection much more: Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman was an exciting, satisfying adventure with an atmospheric setting based on the Devon coast and on real people and events of the eighteenth century. Plus, puppet shows!
The plausibility level was not always high here either, and yet with her storytelling energy and well-crafted language Landman managed to keep me engaged with her coming-of age story of a mixed-race boy with a mysterious past. Set adrift by the death of the man he’s always known as Pa, Caleb must try to unravel the secrets of his own origins as well as of his supposed father’s life and death. For fans of high-action, character-rich period drama by the likes of Philip Pullman and Leon Garfield, this will be a welcome new addition to the genre.
Thanks, Candlewick, for bringing these British imports to our shores! I hope each one will find the right audience to enjoy it.
Ever since Betsy Bird put this long-lost Newbery honor book from 1934 at the top of her list of underrated middle grade books I’ve been dying to read it. And lo and behold, sometimes dreams do come true! Three years later, it’s back in print thanks to the fantastic folks at Paul Dry Books, with an afterword by Betsy herself.
Set in ancient Crete, The Winged Girl of Knossos starts out with a thrilling scene in which our heroine, Inas, goes deep sea diving for sponges — just for the fun of it, not because she needs the work — and the action doesn’t let up from there. She also takes a dramatic turn in the bull ring, helps out her friend Princess Ariadne who has inexplicably fallen for one of the boorish Greek captives, and comes to the rescue of her father Daedalus who is causing a stir with his outlandish inventions (including hang-glider-style wings that permit humans to soar with the birds). Danger abounds, but so do moments of beauty, artistry, and lyricism.
Having just done a reread of Mary Renault’s Theseus books it was interesting to revisit the mythical Crete and Knossos from another point of view. The discoveries at Knossos were quite new when the book was written, and Berry clearly enjoyed coming up with ways to put the fragments together into a cohesive and compelling narrative. She crams in more incidents, characters, and details than would probably fit in a soberly factual story, but her storytelling verve might well inspire young students to learn more about the truth behind the tale. And in the wonderfully energetic Inas, she’s created a heroine for the ages, one of the first and most memorable self-determining girls in the Newbery canon.
As an adult reader, I found myself sometimes missing a more introspective side to Inas’s adventures, and more character development than action, but at the target age range of around 9 to 12 I probably would not have sensed anything lacking. I think I would have been enchanted with this vision of a magical time and place, and would have simply loved flying, diving, sailing, adventuring, and intriguing with Inas.
Erick Berry was a pseudonym of Allena Champlin Best, who trained as an artist and illustrated most of her own books as well as those by her husband, Herbert Best. For this book, as well as several dramatic full-page illustrations, she created charming decorations drawn from Minoan artwork, all of which greatly enhance the text. The Paul Dry edition preserves these, while re-setting the text in an elegant and appropriate style. Overall, this is a rediscovery that no fan of children’s historical fiction, myth-inspired adventure stories, or Newbery-award books should miss.