Is the Waterstones Book of the Year worth the hype?

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

In the darkness he grows afraid. There’s something there, he feels it, biding its time – implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction. Down in the deeps it slumbered and up it’s come at last: he imagines it breasting the wave, avidly scenting the air. He is seized by dread – his heart halts with it – in the space of a moment he’s been charged, condemned, and brought to judgement: oh what a sinner he’s been – what a black pip there is at his core!

London, 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she takes the opportunity to head for Essex, where rumours are spreading that the mythical Essex Serpent is roaming the marshes and claiming human lives. A keen amateur naturalist, Cora hopes that the serpent might be a previously undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, a local vicar, and the two strike up an intense relationship.

This book has received no end of accolades; shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award, longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2017, longlisted for the Baileys Prize 2017, and winner of the Waterstones Book of the Year 2016 – it had a lot to live up to.

This book is very much character-driven, with the focus firmly on the relationships between the characters. Cora and Will are the protagonists but there are several other characters important to the story, and each of their stories focuses on a different kind of love. They are each flawed and searching for something, and feel modern in their problems and desires. Unfortunately, because the cast of characters is so large, there were inevitably some I liked less than others.

With Perry’s focus on characterisation, there isn’t a great deal that happens in terms of plot, but the characters and the writing are so wonderful that this hardly seems to matter.

The writing is beautiful, if a little longwinded at times (no one needs a full page description of a marsh) but that speaks to Perry’s influences, to writers like Dickens and the Victorian tone she has successfully emulated. Its scenes are written in a very cinematic way, so you almost feel as if you are watching a film, and you can imagine that the BBC are longing to get their hands on the rights to turn this into a period drama.

It examines typical gothic themes of reason vs superstition, science vs religion, forbidden desire, hostile landscapes, and faith. The atmosphere is superb; from the bleak Essex estuary to the claustrophobic, poverty-stricken streets of London Perry transports the reader instantly to 1893, to a time when everything was changing and nothing seemed certain.

An entertaining historical novel that leans towards the gothic, this would be a great book to take on holiday with you.

Many thanks to Serpent’s Tail for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

How do you know you’re real if no one remembers you?

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

As memory of me faded, so did a part of myself. Whoever that Hope Arden is who laughs with her friends, smiles with her family, flirts with her lover, resents her boss, triumphs with her colleagues – she ceased to exist, and it has been surprising for me to discover just how little of me is left behind, when all that is stripped away.

Hope Arden is the girl the world forgets. It started when she was 16 years old. A father forgetting to drive her to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at her and sees a stranger. No matter what she does, the words she says, the crimes she commits, you will never remember her.

This is a very clever book with a lot to say. What starts as a tale of magical realism quickly deepens into an exploration of identity, friendship and perfection.

In this book, Perfection is an app which helps users achieve a ‘perfect’ version of themselves. Users score points for obeying the app’s instructions – going to the gym, eating a healthy meal, attending an A-list party – and lose points for refusing to go along with its demands. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the book and, as it’s not so far from the world we currently live in, strikes eerily close to home.

Hope is a character unlike any other and her unique situation provides North with plenty of opportunity to muse on complicated emotions of loneliness and fear. How can Hope hold down a job if her boss won’t remember her? How will she find a place to live if her landlord forgets what she looks like? How does she know she’s real if no one remembers her?

My main problem with this book is simple: it’s just too long. I have nothing against doorstopper books if the story warrants the longer length, but this book could have been cut in half and very little would have been lost. It starts off slowly and the slow pace works at first as we get to know Hope as a character, but before long the minute attention to every last detail of Hope’s thought processes becomes repetitive and dull. Despite the brilliant writing I still found myself skim-reading large passages because I was bored.

If you’re a quick reader I would definitely recommend this book. However, those who prefer to take their time and move through a book a little more slowly might find themselves becoming too bored to carry on.

Debut novel based on the true story of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

Once, I scarcely believed in the devil. I scorned the kind of folk who earnestly think he can put on a physical form, like a coat, whether that form be like a cat or a dog or some warped combining of the two; those who have it that the devil can enter a person in such a manner that he can be deftly taken out again, like a stone from a plum. I scorned those who believe such things. I lived in London once; I can remember how to sneer.

1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the town where she grew up and where her brother Matthew still lives. But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew is changed. As whispers of witchcraft spread through the town, rumours spread that Matthew is keeping a book in which he is gathering guilty women’s names.

This book is based on the true story of self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins – though whether or not he had a sister in real life is unknown. It tells the story of a bizarre time in England’s history, when accusations of witchcraft were taken seriously and many lost their lives after accusations got out of hand.

The problem with this book is clear in the title. We don’t experience the events through the Witchfinder himself – nor through any of the witches who are accused – but through a woman who really has no part to play in the story. She spends most of the book listening at doors, overhearing conversations and watching events unfold while taking no part in them herself.

Because Alice is so far removed from the action Underdown fails to create enough excitement to really compel you to keep reading. Alice keeps repeating her desire to find a way to stop Matthew and make him see reason, but she fails to actually step up and do so. As such, she doesn’t actually do very much, and is a fairly bland and uninteresting character overall.

Underdown’s attempts to provide reasons for Matthew’s behaviour fail to ring true. It makes no sense that the feeble reasons she provides – mainly that he was made fun of and rejected as a child – would provoke such an extreme reaction. If she had made the confident decision to leave him as a mystery, without resorting to an easy explanation for his actions, it would have been more believable.

There are flashes of really good writing here and it’s unfortunate that Underdown hasn’t managed to carry it through the whole book. There are moments when she creates a truly compelling, chilling atmosphere, and towards the end of the book the pace really picks up; it’s just a shame that it takes so long to get there.

The novel has its pros, and if you are interested in Matthew Hopkins and this period of history you will no doubt enjoy it, but it fell flat for me.

Sarah Dunant’s second novel about the Borgias is historical fiction at its very best

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant

Alexander registers the jolt as the oars start dipping and pulling at the water. He has been halfway across Italy in his thoughts, travelling with his daughter as she moves from town to town, her smile seducing everyone she meets. His sweet Lucrezia. It has been only a few weeks since they took leave of each other, but already her absence is a wound inside him. My God, her husband had better appreciate her, or he will send an army to get her back.

It is 1502 and Rodrigo Borgia sits the Papal throne as Alexander VI. He uses this position of power to promote the interests of his illegitimate children: the ruthless military commander Cesare who is on a mission to conquer the Italian city states one by one, and beautiful Lucrezia who is discovering the formidable power of her feminine charms. Into this turbulent moment in history steps Niccolo Machiavelli, a young diplomat who views the key historical players around him with a shrewd eye.

In the Name of the Family picks up where Blood and Beauty, Dunant’s first novel about the Borgias, left off. The story continues with Lucrezia travelling to the home of her soon-to-be third husband, conquering the hearts of diplomats and townspeople along the way, and with Cesare marching remorselessly through Italy, the only idea in his mind that of conquest. Meanwhile Rodrigo continues his machinations behind the scenes, manipulating those around him to get exactly what he wants – though the effort of doing so is starting to catch up with him.

As with Blood and Beauty, Dunant has done a sterling job of crafting believable and three-dimensional characters out of what we know about the Borgias, their actions playing out against a backdrop of immense political upheaval. I particularly enjoyed the snatches of writing and dialogue taken from real letters. Dunant effortlessly blends fiction and historical facts to create an immersive and entertaining read.

Although we are given a broad sweep of history, the reader never loses sight of the characters at the centre of the story. Lucrezia is a beguiling and intriguing young woman far from the merciless harlot she has often been cast as in the past. Rodrigo is half-amusing, half-terrifying, for his love for his family trumps all else – even his religion. But the star here is Cesare, a man so in love with the creation of his own legend that he doesn’t dare slow down, not even to sleep.

The pace of this novel isn’t always thrilling (Dunant does like her details) but the story is engrossing all the same. As Lucrezia begins to discover her own power and the possibilities for manipulation that come with it, and Cesare continues his audacious grab for power, we wonder how long the Borgias can possibly remain at the top before their dynasty starts to fall.

This is a world of two halves: on one hand the brutal and terrifying world of assassins in the night and armies at war, and on the other the shadowy rooms inside palaces where double dealings and secret courtships take place. Both are equally well-written and just as much fun to spend time in.

If I had a complaint about this book, it is that the ending seems rushed. After spending so much time in the company of these characters I would have liked a little more detail about how it all ends.

This is historical fiction at its very best: visceral, engrossing and gripping, In the Name of the Family completes a duology that every historical fiction fan should read.

Many thanks to Virago for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

A mystery, crime novel, romance and ghost story all in one

The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick. The colour is exactly wrong for me. Deep, ripe plum, nearly purple, the type of harsh shade that beautiful women wear to prove they can get away with anything. Against my ordinary features, the lipstick is as severe as a bloodstain. I feel like a misbehaving child trying on her mother’s makeup.

For five years Edie has worked for the Elysian Society, a secretive organisation that offers its clients the chance to reconnect with their dead loved ones by channelling them through living ‘Bodies’. Edie is regarded as the best Body in the team, but everything changes when Patrick, a distraught husband, comes to speak to his drowned wife. The more time Edie spends as the enigmatic Sylvia, the closer she comes to falling in love with Patrick. And the more mysterious Sylvia’s death begins to appear.

At its heart The Possessions is a ghost story – however, I can guarantee you’ve never read a ghost story quite like this before. This book is set in an unnamed city in an indeterminate time, and the reader is given scant details about the exact nature of how the Elysian Society carries out its mysterious – and slightly creepy – purpose. But despite the lack of detail I found myself tumbling headfirst into this world and unwilling to leave it for any length of time.

You would never guess that this is Murphy’s debut novel. Her writing is astoundingly confident and her sentences are crafted with such skill that she seems far more experienced. One moment she can have you sympathising wholeheartedly with Edie and her lonely lifestyle, and the next she can have your skin crawling with horror.

Edie is a brilliant character, one you will empathise with even as you balk at some of her actions. She is uncomfortable in her own skin and unsure of who she is, and has found an escape in working as a Body. The feelings she develops for Patrick so unnerve her that her attempts to make sense of them lead her to increasingly desperate actions.

The threads of the novel are weaved together cleanly and expertly, and though the boundaries between past and present begin to blur the plot is never unclear. The story is riveting and yet disquieting at the same time; you’ll keep reading even as the powerful sense of dread tugs insistently at your mind.

There are so many brilliant things about this novel that it seems impossible to cover them all. Although it contains elements of the supernatural those who tend to steer clear of fantasy novels would still enjoy this intriguing book. It is a mystery, thriller, romance, horror, ghost story, and crime novel all in one.

It has shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca, similarities to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian worlds, and a keen feminism that runs through it all. Yet The Possessions remains entirely its own book, unique and unputdownable.

This is a story of obsession and grief, a spooky and slightly creepy meditation on identity and desire. It’s one of those books you will be able to read again and again and still be knocked breathless. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Many thanks to Scribe for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

New book releases for April 2017

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans

One June evening in 1881, Phoebe Stanbury stands before the guests at her engagement party and is murdered by a knife-wielding stranger, who then turns to her fiancé and mouths: ‘I promised I would save you’. A book billed for fans of Kate Mosse and Jessie Burton.

Release date: 6th April

The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis

Just before Henry’s birth, his father returns to the remote North Carolina mountains where he was raised and installs his family in a gothic mansion. There, Henry grows up, until a death in the family tips his father towards madness and he flees, not to return until years later. I’m a sucker for anything gothic and this sounds right up my street.

Release date: 6th April

We All Begin as Strangers by Harriet Cummings

1984: a mysterious figure nicknamed ‘the Fox’ slips into homes in the English village of Heathcote, either leaving curious objects behind or taking things from them. When someone goes missing, everyone believes the Fox is responsible. Inspired by a true story, this debut has been compared to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a book I adored.

Release date: 20th April

He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly

In the hushed aftermath of a total eclipse, Laura witnesses a brutal attack. She and her boyfriend Kit call the police and, in that moment, four lives are changed forever. This book has already received incredible praise and has been called ‘twisted’ and ‘atmospheric’.

Release date: 20th April

After You Left by Carol Mason

When Justin walks out on Alice on their honeymoon with no explanation apart from a cryptic note, Alice is left alone and bewildered. Then she meets Evelyn, a woman with a heart-breaking story of her own.

Release date: 1st April

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Scott Burroughs gratefully accepts the offer of a spare seat on the Bateman family’s private jet, but just minutes after take-off the plane crashes into the ocean. Only Scott and the Batemans’ small son are left alive. Their extraordinary survival means they are engulfed in a maelstrom of speculation. The latest book from the creator of Fargo promises to be thrilling and full of suspense.

Release date: 6th April

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

At the Covent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raise to be killers, but the sisters don’t truly understand what they have purchased when None Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder, guilty of worse. This is the first book in a new fantasy series from the author of epic fantasy Prince of Thorns.

Release date: 6th April

The Cows by Dawn O’Porter

Tara, Cam and Stella are strangers living their own lives as best they can. When an extraordinary event ties invisible bonds of friendship between them, one woman’s catastrophe becomes another’s inspiration. This is the debut adult novel from Dawn O’Porter and promises to be ‘fearlessly frank and funny’.

Release date: 6th April

When Light is Like Water by Molly McCloskey

Alice, a young American, arrives in Ireland without a plan. She falls in love with an Irishman, marries him, and settles into their life together. And then, in the course of a single hot summer, she embarks on an affair that sets her life on a new course. This is a literary novel from a writer who has been called ‘extravagantly gifted’.

Release date: 27th April

Four Princes by John Julius Norwich

This non-fiction book tells the story of four men who towered over 16th century Europe: Francis I, Henry VIII, Charles V and Suleiman the Magnificent. Popular historian John Julius Norwich depicts how these four dynamic characters and their incredible achievements changed European history.

Release date: 11th April

Eleanor Moran’s drama would make an excellent holiday read

Too Close for Comfort by Eleanor Moran

It started out quiet. It can be that way in the middle of the day – it’s like I’m hidden in a big, concrete chest of drawers. The odd car pulls in and out, people staring at me, wondering why I don’t climb out of this shiny piece of tat. None of their business. Sometimes I want to stick my tongue out like I’m six years old. One day I did, some old fart in a suit peering through the window like he was my headmaster, but then I remembered the last thing I needed to do was to make myself memorable.

Psychotherapist Mia Cosgrove puts her life in London on hold when she receives a desperate phone call from her best friend, Lysette. A friend of Lysette’s, Sarah, has plunged to her death from the top of a multi-storey car park. At first the police are convinced it’s a suicide, but when another death rocks the rural community, Mia is drawn into the increasingly dangerous investigation.

This is one of those books where I got exactly what I expected from it. I guessed it was going to be an average mystery/crime/thriller, enjoyable and easy-going, and that’s just what it is.

The story centres around Mia, who, despite having a vested personal interest in the tragedy, is asked to provide support as a psychotherapist to those who have been affected by Sarah’s death. She is drawn into Sarah’s close group of friends, who all seem to be hiding something, and she finds herself more and more determined to find out what really happened.

I loved that this book was all about female characters, their close and often complicated relationships, their attitudes towards themselves and others, their struggle to appear to be coping even when things are going disastrously wrong. Many of them aren’t exactly likeable, but they are sympathetic all the same. Moran gives you just enough information about them to inspire your empathy while holding enough back to make sure you’re never certain what they are going to do next.

Although it is billed as a thriller I’d say this book reads more like a drama. Rather than building up to some big shocking reveal at the end of the book, Moran focuses on the relationships between characters and the subtle ebbs and flows in friendships. There are moments, however, when it seems Moran is unsure of her decision to make this a quieter book and her descriptions become a little artificial, as if she’s suddenly decided she wants to write a thriller instead.

Overall, however, the writing was easy to read and flowed well, with an occasional hint of brilliant insight. I particularly enjoyed the scenes between Mia and Sarah’s young son, Max, which are beautifully and sensitively written.

What irritated me was that Moran finishes every chapter with a few lines that portend doom, obviously designed to keep the reader reading. Moran could have easily cut these sentences without losing anything from the book; there was enough tension and suspense without them. The same goes for the diary entries interspersed throughout the narrative; they didn’t add anything and could easily have been cut.

The ending was satisfying and in-keeping with the tone of the book. There are no last minute twists, no over-the-top show-down. It all made sense and it all wrapped up nicely, without seeming too contrived.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for something entertaining and enjoyable to switch off with. It would make an excellent holiday read, and I’d definitely be interested in reading more from Eleanor Moran in the future.

Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.