January in Books: His Bloody Project; The Essex Serpent; Voyage of the Basilisk

Ah, January—the month of new beginnings and fresh book goals. As well as starting a new Booktrotting chapter in Oceania, this month’s reading has been mostly about making a dent in my stack of literary Christmas presents, starting with bloody murder in the Scottish highlands, and a double helping of sea-serpents…


His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

A surprise and an underdog it may have been, but there’s no denying His Bloody Project deserved its place on the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Billed by the blurb as a simple historical fiction about a murder and its following trial, what sets this novel apart is Burnet’s unique choice of form. Presenting the story as true from the outset, he tells it not via the usual prose but with a collection of “found” witness statements, court documents and the memoir of the accused—think The Blair Witch Project meets Law & Order: Scottish Victims Unit.

But whilst that certainly made for an interesting concept, I’m still not entirely sure it resulted in the best read. It just felt a little too choppy to get into: the section comprising murderer Roddy’s memoir was a classic piece of historical fiction, compelling as it mounted to its bloody climax and so vibrantly real in its portrayal of Victorian Highland life; but for all its strengths, that part felt too short, and the medical reports and trial coverage far too long. For now, I’m still in two minds about His Bloody Project, though perhaps in time I’ll appreciate it better.


The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

But if I’m still unsure about His Bloody Project, I couldn’t be any more certain by comparison about The Essex Serpent. In the wake of the death of her abusive husband, the intrepid Cora Seabourne leaves behind the pity and mourning of London and rents a house in the tiny Essex parish of Aldwinter. Indulging her love of palaeontology amongst the fossil-rich clay of the Blackwater estuary, Cora’s dream of emulating Mary Anning soars when she learns that Aldwinter is haunted by a primordial sea-serpent…

I don’t think it would be too much to say that I really and truly fell for The Essex Serpent. The promise of a foggy riverbank and accompanying Gothic beastie would probably have been enough on its own to make this a good novel, but what makes it great is how Perry lets it swell to a level of complexity far beyond the mere terror of the Serpent. More than anything The Essex Serpent is a story about human relationships, about the different forms of love binding Cora’s circle of mismatched friends together; it’s also the story of England facing great change, as society’s old certainties are tested by feminism, socialism, science and reason, and people’s fears of this new age take shape as a serpent in the mist.

With everything The Essex Serpent sets out to be, it’s no wonder it’s won Sarah Perry so much praise over the last year—and that’s without even mentioning the beauty of Perry’s writing itself, and the way her voice flourishes into passages so sublime I couldn’t help but read them twice. It is simply an astounding novel, and I couldn’t recommend it enough.


Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan

And speaking of sea serpents, after finishing The Essex Serpent there really was no other way to follow it up than by setting off with Marie Brennan’s Isabella Camherst, dragon naturalist and the Indiana Jones of fantastic palaeontology—the spirit of Mary Anning would have it no other way.

Voyage of the Basilisk, the third instalment in Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series (of which part five is out this April), sees Isabella embark on a two-year voyage aboard the RSS Basilisk, searching for sea-serpents in the far-flung oceans of the world. It’s this use of location that is one of this series’ main strengths: although the content of each volume is more or less the same—dragons are sought, shenanigans ensue, discoveries are made—Brennan uses her knack for worldbuilding to set each novel in an environment that not only keeps the story feeling fresh, but is also completely tangible, with whole languages and cultures that seem fully at home in the worlds they inhabit. From frigid mountains to swamps and savannahs, and now to the seas of Yelang and Dajin, these books are an armchair explorer’s dream.

However, it must be said that whilst the locations of Voyage of the Basilisk were as good as ever, the pacing of the book itself was a little off compared to its predecessors. It’s hardly surprising, given the task of condensing two years at sea into just 365 pages, but with so many time cuts it all felt too episodic to really flow as one narrative—nevertheless, with the scenery rolling ever by, and to the sound of Isabella’s whip-cracking wit, this still proved to be a highly enjoyable slice of escapism.

New Year’s Reading List

New year, new books: now there’s a resolution I can get behind. In my opinion, there’s no finer way to kick-start the year than by getting your teeth into a new book, whether that means taking a chance on an author you’ve never heard of or knocking a few of those Christmas gifts and holiday sale bargains off the to-be-read shelf.

With all the new beginnings in the air, I also like to spend some time on the approach to spring tackling some of those books I feel I should have read already, the Steinbeck and the Nabokov and the D. H. Lawrence—those books I buy from charity shops because they look all literary, but somehow never get round to reading at the time. Last year it was the time for To the Lighthouse and Fahrenheit 451, but I think with the way things are looking for the foreseeable future, it might be a good idea to make my reading list a little more dystopian this year…


The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Last year it took me pretty much forever to get round to reading the 2015 Man Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, so this year I’m determined not to be so sluggish with Paul Beatty’s 2016 winner The Sellout. Yes, that does mean giving it quite the bump to the top of my 80-strong to-read list—but given its satirical look at race relations in the US, and with many Americans currently re-evaluating whether racism is really as bad as everyone says (yeah, it really is), there doesn’t seem to be any more fitting time than the present to make myself acquainted with The Sellout.


img_3230His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

Another to-be-read from last year’s Man Booker shortlist, with all the praise Graeme Macrae Burnet’s fictional murder case study has garnered I could hardly say no to giving it a spin—not to mention my love of all things Scottish wouldn’t let me pass it up if I tried.


img_32351984, George Orwell

1984 is one of those books mentioned above that caught my eye in a second-hand shop, but once brought home was consigned to wait patiently at the tail end of my to-be-reads. But, as with The Sellout, the zeitgeist is pointing me towards Orwell’s Big Brother classic; after all, we probably haven’t got much time before 1984 stops being fiction and becomes enshrined as legitimate prophecy.


img_3234The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

One of the many books to arrive mysteriously in my stocking on Christmas morning, I fell in love with The Essex Serpent‘s thistly cover and dreamlike prologue so quickly I actually started reading it the minute I unwrapped it. Now two weeks and 150 pages in, this already looks like a pretty solid nominee for my book of the year.


img_3237Stone of Farewell, Tad Williams

I read the first volume of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, The Dragonbone Chair, back at the end of last summer, and after taking a few detours through Middle-Earth and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, I feel it’s about time I got back to Williams’ sword-and-sorcery epics. I’m hoping the series does something to pick up in Stone of Farewell: The Dragonbone Chair was plenty enjoyable but got a bit stale towards the end, and it’ll be a shame if Stone does nothing more than pick up where Chair fizzled out.

November in Books: Dracula; The Hobbit; Eileen

draculaDracula and Other Horror Classics, Bram Stoker (reread)

There’s no better time for reading Gothic classics than in these cold, wet nights before Christmas – and when those Gothic classics also happen to be among your favourite novels, then that just sweetens the deal.

As a writer, I’ve always looked to Dracula as an example of great craftsmanship. The pacing throughout is expert – especially the final act, running like a mad scramble downhill to the finale – and the way it’s told through scraps of diary entries and letters is a really ingenious way of turning several parallel storylines into an intriguing mystery. I also loved reconvening with one of my favourite literary characters, Mina Murray: what with all the historic sexism running throughout the story, I’ve always relished the moments when Mina stands up as the dependable pillar of the novel whilst the brave menfolk weep and fall to bits around her.

I must say, the other Bram Stoker novels and stories collected in this edition weren’t much to write home about – to keep it brief, I’ll just say there’s a reason everyone’s heard of Bram Stoker’s Dracula but not Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars. But hey, they were worth reading while I had them, even if I do just pretend this collection ends with Dracula in future.


The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (reread)the-hobbit

Considering I only reread The Lord of the Rings just last year, I wasn’t planning on returning to Middle-Earth for a little while yet. But then the universe hit a software glitch and put a frat party bigot into the White House, and I needed a little carefree comfort to see me through.

Unfortunately, not even J.R.R. Tolkien is enough to keep at bay the waves of nauseating horror I feel each time I see The Orange One in the news. But nevertheless, there is still something to be said for returning to old childhood favourites in times of crisis, and especially for renewing the unexpected wisdom of Bilbo Baggins: “Go back? No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!”

Now, to move onto The Lord of the Rings and read up on how one goes about defeating a dark lord with an ostentatious tower and a love of gold…


Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegheileen

A noir thriller? Set at Christmas? Told by a darkly comic narrator riddled with social anxieties? It’s almost like I had this book written to order.

In all seriousness, Eileen was one of those rare novels that made a deep connection with me right from the start. Although the plot is billed as a classic noir – involving a murder, a redhead and a loaded gun, no less – the novel is really more a character study of Eileen Dunlop, a young misfit whose life revolves around caring for her alcoholic father, stalking her fantasy lover, and hiding from the world any sign that she might be anything other than normal.

I’ve read a few reviews since that say Eileen’s internal monologue actually makes this book difficult to digest. I can see why: Eileen’s habits range from the unusual – keeping a dead mouse in the glove box of her car – to the downright unsettling – like daydreaming about her own sexual assault. Add in Moshfegh’s tendency to linger on grim descriptions (Eileen’s “torrential, oceanic” laxative-induced bowel movements come to mind) and that can certainly make for a tough read at times.

But whilst Eileen’s head can be a difficult one to inhabit, I feel that’s what made her so resonant for me. She’s strange, yes, but she’s not a weirdo, and there’s an honesty about that in even the darkest bits of Moshfegh’s writing; and as someone who’s spent most of their life on the other side of normal, meeting a character so honest about and eager to be accepted for their oddities could hardly be more disturbing than it is familiar. Easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year (or any year, for that matter) and to make up for it being pipped to the Man Booker prize by Paul Beatty’s The Sellout I think you should all go out and buy a copy. It is a Christmas novel, after all.

(If you’re interested, here also is a great Guardian interview with Moshfegh about how the novel came about.)