Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Essex Serpent is a thought-provoking, lushly gothic read that imagines an Austen-esque heroine in her darkest timeline. Sarah Perry, much like her insatiably curious heroine Cora, unearths everything she can find within her narrative, revealing pieces of debates about religious belief, social obligation, and the nature of friendship. It’s a story filled with the pursuit of forbidden desires and is really fairly devoid of redemption–which is, I think, exactly the point. Mythical serpents are always better in our minds than seeing the truth flayed on the shore, and Perry plays with this idea in human nature. What if the things that we wanted to happen–with our friendships, with our fascinations, with our attractions, with our deaths–were all actually granted? Would it be what we wanted and hoped for? Or would we rather cling to the mystery of what our lives might be like? The novel brims with life, but also with defeat. An absorbing read.

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Book Review: The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is wildly experimental and very, very, very weird. It’s an ambitious and powerful hellscape with a spellbinding staying power. Matt Bell makes a torrential statement with this novel, the narrative structure of which resembles something like echoes that you can see bouncing off of a set of mirrors that you can hear. It’s truly beyond literal description and yet finds its footing in classical allegorical territory–it’s a psychological tour through grief, marital love and resentment, self-hatred, and the perverse (or courageous) will to keep going through any despair. The reader who approaches this monstrosity needs to be willing to accept almost anything as truth, and must be up for constant gut-turning imagery and lots and lots of pain. But: the reward is great. The story is a spinning, dreamlike voyage that I found impossible to go back from once I began. Bell pulls his reader deeper and deeper in, until it’s done. The rage and sorrow communicated in this story are as real as the plot is impossible, and that’s the towering literary feat of this pitch-dark, fantastical read. It reminds us that our choices, however we may choose to move on from them, are irreversible, and only our own to atone for.

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Book Review: Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance is one part American tall tale, one part panel interview, and one part old-fashioned fantasy. Ruth Emmie Lang takes a risk–which pays off with varied levels of success–in crafting a story about one man, but told through the eyes of those who knew him. As the perspectives shift, we understand the different ways in which people react to difference. As someone who enjoys fantasy, I am always willing to suspend disbelief, and I relished the stunning imagery associated with Weylyn’s natural magic within the book. However, there are instances of rushed or oversimplified human interaction that feel contrived from time to time… for me, it’s harder to suspend that kind of disbelief. Where I do feel this book really succeeds is in its tipping over of the “magical chosen one” trope. Weylyn is a hero who doesn’t want to be one, doesn’t want to hone his gifts, and in fact would reject them utterly if he could. It is this, rather than the magic itself, that is so fascinating. While he does use his power at certain moments, it is often out of his own control, and that is a feeling that makes his character (while the most fantastical) probably the most believable one in this sometimes funny, often charming read.

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