A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

It’s been a few years since I last read a Susanna Kearsley book and as I still have two or three left to read I decided to include her most recent, A Desperate Fortune, on my 20 Books of Summer list. There are some connections between this book and her previous one, The Firebird, but they both stand alone and it’s not necessary to read them in order.

Like many of Kearsley’s novels, A Desperate Fortune is set in two different time periods. First, in the modern day, we meet Sara Thomas, a young woman with a special talent for solving mathematical puzzles and breaking codes. Sara also has Asperger’s and relies on the friendship and support of her cousin Jacqui. Jacqui works in the publishing business and when one of her authors, the historian Alistair Scott, asks for help in deciphering a journal written in code, it is Sara who gets the job.

The other thread of the novel takes place in 1732 and follows the story of the diary-writer, twenty-one-year-old Mary Dundas, who is half French and half Scottish. Mary’s family are Jacobites – supporters of the exiled James Stuart, who they believe is the rightful King James VIII of Scotland and III of England. Setting off on a journey across France with her brother Nicolas one day, Mary has no idea what he has planned for her, and is shocked to find herself caught up in a plot to protect a fellow Jacobite who is on the run from the law. Her diary tells of the lengths she goes to, the disguises she adopts and the dangers she faces in trying to conceal her companion’s true identity.

These two storylines alternate throughout the book, so that we read several entries from Mary’s journal, followed by Sara’s experiences in decoding it. Both women are interesting characters – and there are a few parallels between the two – but I found Mary’s story much more gripping and couldn’t help thinking that it would have worked just as well on its own without Sara’s framing it. There’s a romance for each woman too, but again, it was Mary’s that I found most convincing; although I did like Sara’s love interest, it all seemed to happen too quickly and too conveniently.

It was interesting to revisit the subject of the Jacobites, who also feature in The Firebird – although the two books explore the topic from very different perspectives, with this one being set in France and the other in Russia. The author’s note at the end of the book is long and comprehensive, discussing some of the choices made in writing this novel and explaining which parts of the story are based on fact and which are fictional. I was surprised to see how many of the characters I’d assumed were purely imaginary were actually inspired by real people!

I did enjoy A Desperate Fortune, though not as much as most of the other Susanna Kearsley novels I’ve read. My favourites seem to be the ones with supernatural elements, such as The Firebird, The Rose Garden and Mariana. I always like Kearsley’s writing style, though – there’s something so comforting about it, so easy and effortless to read. It’s the same feeling that I get when I pick up a book by Mary Stewart. I’m looking forward now to reading my remaining two Kearsley novels, The Shadowy Horses and Sophia’s Secret (the UK title for The Winter Sea).

This is book 12/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge. (I’m aiming for 15 now, I think – anything over that will be a bonus!)

Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

I really have no idea why I haven’t read this book before now. The Far Pavilions has been one of my favourite books since I was a teenager, but for some reason it just never occurred to me to look into what else M.M. Kaye wrote until recently, when I read two of her Death In… mystery novels. When I saw that Cirtnecce was hosting a readalong of Shadow of the Moon this summer, it seemed the perfect opportunity to try another of Kaye’s historical novels in the hope that I would love it as much as The Far Pavilions!

Shadow of the Moon was originally published in 1957 and revised in 1979. Like The Far Pavilions, it is set in India, but at a slightly earlier time – before and during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Our heroine, Winter de Ballesteros, is born in Lucknow to an English mother and Spanish father. Orphaned by the age of six, Winter is sent to England to be raised by her great-grandfather, the Earl of Ware, but the country of her birth still holds a special place in her heart and she dreams of returning one day to the Gulab Mahal, the place she considers home.

Winter is eleven when she meets Conway Barton, who is visiting from India, and she is captivated by his good looks and his connection with the country she misses so much. Conway, with his eye on Winter’s fortune, suggests a betrothal, but it is not until six years later that Winter is old enough to go and join him in India for the wedding. Now Commissioner of Lunjore, Conway says that he is far too busy to escort his fiancée across the sea himself, so he sends his assistant, Captain Alex Randall, in his place. Unknown to Winter, however, her betrothed is no longer the man she thinks he is and has another reason for wanting to delay their meeting. Will the marriage take place or will Alex be able to change her mind during the long voyage to Lunjore?

There’s a romantic aspect to Shadow of the Moon, then, but the historical element is just as important. Cirtnecce has put together two excellent posts (here and here) describing the political landscape in India in 1857, how the country came to be ruled by the British East India Company and the factors leading to the rebellion. All of this is explored in a lot of depth throughout the novel, showing the same impressive level of research and the same understanding and sympathy for India and its people that I remember from The Far Pavilions.

The descriptions of India itself are wonderful and vivid. Whether she’s writing about the streets and bazaars of Lunjore or the relentless heat of summer and the relief of the monsoon, Kaye always chooses just the right words to bring the scene to life. The horrors and atrocities of the Mutiny are also described in vivid detail, although a relatively short portion of the novel is devoted to the actual rebellion and much more to the gradual building of tension, ending in the controversy over the new Enfield rifles which sparked the revolt (the British required the sepoys to use cartridges which were smeared with pork and beef fat, offensive to both Muslims and Hindus).

Lunjore, where much of the action is set, is a fictional district on the borders of Oudh (although it is portrayed so convincingly I had to check to see whether it was a real place or not) but the situation which unfolds there is similar to that being played out elsewhere in India. The British commanding officers are seemingly blind to what is going on around them, refusing to listen to stories of unrest amongst the Indian people and unwilling to doubt the loyalty of their armies. Alex Randall is one of the few exceptions – a man who thinks for himself and who tries to see things from the point of view of others. It’s so frustrating to watch his advice and warnings repeatedly falling on deaf ears as his superiors tell themselves he is worrying about nothing and stubbornly refuse to heed his words.

I found Alex an interesting, complex character, torn between his feelings for Winter and what he sees as his duties and responsibilities towards both the Company and the people of Lunjore. I was particularly intrigued by his relationship with Kishan Prasad – two men who are on ‘opposite sides’ but who each understand what the other is trying to do and under different circumstances might have been friends. With the bridging role he plays between the British and Indian perspectives, Alex often reminded me of Ashton Pelham-Martyn from The Far Pavilions. It took me a bit longer to warm to Winter – I was irritated by her infatuation with Conway and had to keep reminding myself that she was only seventeen!

Whether or not the romance captures your imagination, though, I think there should be something in this novel to interest most readers…the fascinating historical background, the colourful portrait of another time and place or maybe the adventure (plenty of daring escapes, disguises, ambushes and secret meetings by moonlight). I loved it and now I can’t wait to read M.M. Kaye’s other historical novel, Trade Wind, and the rest of the Death In series.

This is book 11/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

Published in 1922, The Secret Adversary is the first of Agatha Christie’s five books to feature Tommy and Tuppence and also the first I have read from that series. I hadn’t been quite sure what to expect, but although it hasn’t become a favourite Christie novel, I found it very entertaining – more thriller than detective novel and written with a lighthearted humour that gives it a similar feel to the later standalone Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

It begins with a short prologue set during the First World War in which we see a man aboard the sinking Lusitania secretly passing important documents to a young American woman, assuming that she is more likely to survive the disaster than he is. We then jump forward a few years; the war is now over and Tommy Beresford and Prudence Cowley (known as Tuppence), two young friends in their twenties, are looking for work. Desperate to make some money, they decide to advertise themselves as Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere.

To their surprise, they are offered an assignment almost immediately when a Mr Whittington hears them talking and approaches Tuppence. Reluctant to give her own name, Tuppence tells him she is Jane Finn, a name she remembered Tommy saying he’d overheard in the street earlier that day – but as soon as Mr Whittington hears that name, his manner changes. He sends her away and by the next day he has vanished without trace. Now Tommy and Tuppence are sure they have stumbled upon the adventure they’ve been hoping for and decide to track down the mysterious Jane Finn. They get more than they’d bargained for, however, when they find themselves involved in a case of international espionage.

The Secret Adversary is packed with non-stop action: there are secret societies, passwords and code names, locked rooms, stolen identities and at least one murder. As I’ve said, it’s much more of a thriller or spy novel than a mystery, but of course there are still some mystery elements – particularly surrounding the elusive Mr Brown, who appears to be the mastermind behind the entire plot. I think I suspected just about every character in the book of being Mr Brown at first, but after a while I decided that he had to be one of two people. I guessed correctly, but as usual Christie does a great job of trying to mislead the reader and make us doubt ourselves!

This is not a book to be taken too seriously – the plot relies heavily on coincidences, the dialogue is often very silly and some of the characters are stereotypes (particularly the American millionaire Julius P. Hersheimmer) – but sometimes I’m just in the mood for something that’s light and fun to read! I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Tommy and Tuppence’s adventures eventually, although I will probably continue to just dip into Christie’s books at random as that has been working for me so far. I’m aware that Tommy and Tuppence age throughout the series, however, so I’m pleased that I managed to start with the first book in which they appear.

Have you read this – or any of the other Tommy and Tuppence books?

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

I don’t read a lot of contemporary crime fiction, but I do love Sharon Bolton’s books! Her latest, Dead Woman Walking, is another great one featuring the usual combination of mystery, suspense, atmospheric settings, stunning plot twists and even humour that I have come to expect from her work.

It begins with a group of people enjoying an early morning flight over the Northumberland National Park in a hot air balloon. Among them are Jessica Lane and her sister Isabel. Now a nun known as Sister Maria Magdalena, Isabel is celebrating her fortieth birthday and Jessica has booked the trip as a special treat. As they drift across the peaceful countryside, Jessica spots a man on the ground below attacking a young woman. He looks up to see her watching him just as she picks up her phone to take a photograph. With all of the other passengers now aware of what is happening, the man is left with no choice other than to bring down the balloon and ensure that everyone in it dies.

When the emergency services arrive on the scene, they begin the unpleasant task of locating and identifying the bodies. It’s not long before the pilot and eleven of his twelve passengers are accounted for, but one woman is missing. Has she managed to escape alive? If so, where is she? And who will find her first – the police or the killer?

This is a wonderful book – one of Sharon Bolton’s best, I think – but now that I’ve started to write about it, I’ve found that there is actually very little I can say that won’t be a spoiler! Part of the fun of reading this book (or anything else by this author) is in being surprised by the many clever plot twists which come one after another throughout the second half of the novel and I would hate to take away any of that enjoyment, even inadvertently, for anyone else. You could guess the twists anyway, of course – I think Sharon Bolton is very fair with her readers and the clues are there from the start, if you’re able to put them together – but I did not and as each one was revealed, I found myself turning back to reread earlier passages in the hope of spotting things that I’d missed the first time.

I mentioned the humour, and I’m aware that from what I’ve said so far this probably doesn’t sound like a very amusing story at all – but although some of the themes at the heart of the novel are undoubtedly very dark, there is also a lot of lightness mixed in with the darkness. Believe it or not, most of the touches of comedy are provided by the nuns of Wynding Priory who are following the balloon story with interest, keen to use some of the mystery-solving skills they’ve picked up from watching repeats of old crime dramas on the convent television.

I loved this book and am already looking forward to her next one, The Craftsman, which it seems we can expect in 2018. In the meantime, I still need to read Blood Harvest, the only one of Sharon Bolton’s novels I haven’t read yet.

This is book 10/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Rhoda Edwards: Some Touch of Pity and Fortune’s Wheel

These two novels from the 1970s had been on my wishlist for a while, since I first developed an interest in reading about the Wars of the Roses, and I’m pleased to have finally had an opportunity to read them. Some Touch of Pity, in particular, is an excellent book; although, chronologically, it is set after Fortune’s Wheel, it was published first (in 1976) and is the first one I’m going to write about here.

Some Touch of Pity (US title is The Broken Sword) covers a relatively short period of history, beginning in 1483 just before the death of King Edward IV and ending with Richard III’s defeat by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. In between, all the major events of Richard III’s ill-fated reign are covered – if you know the period you won’t need a summary from me and if you don’t then I won’t spoil the story for you other than to say that it was a time marked by rebellion, betrayal, rumour and several tragic deaths.

The book is divided into several sections, each one written from the perspective of a different narrator and offering different insights into Richard as a man or as a king. There are even one or chapters narrated by Richard himself – interestingly, of all the novels I’ve read about Richard III, I think this is the first one that allows us to hear his story, even a small part of it, from his own point of view. Other narrators include Richard’s close friend Francis Lovell, his niece Elizabeth of York and court physician William Hobbes, but my favourite is Anne Neville, Richard’s beloved wife and queen. I found Anne’s sections of the book particularly moving and poignant, painting an intimate picture of Richard as a husband and father, whereas some of the others are more concerned with how he deals with the political and military challenges he faces as king.

The novel is perfectly paced, spending just the right amount of time with each narrator before moving on to the next. As it heads towards its inevitable conclusion there’s a sense of dread, but even knowing what’s ultimately going to happen, it’s difficult not to find yourself hoping that this time there will be a different outcome. The section describing the Battle of Bosworth is powerfully written, brilliantly showing Richard’s state of mind before and during the battle as well as the crucial role of Lord Stanley and his brother in deciding the result. However, I wished the book had ended here as the final chapter, giving an account of the aftermath of the battle and the abuse inflicted on Richard’s body was so harrowing and graphic I could hardly bear to read it!

The only thing left to mention is the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. Rhoda Edwards gives a plausible explanation for their disappearance (although it’s not one I’ve ever found very convincing), but as we don’t actually see the princes after they enter the Tower, we have to rely on the word of several of the other characters – and who knows whether they’re telling the truth. It’s all quite ambiguous!

Fortune’s Wheel was published two years later, in 1978, but is actually a prequel to Some Touch of Pity. It covers an earlier period in Richard’s life, starting in 1468 when, as the young Duke of Gloucester, Richard is caught up in the conflict between his elder brother, Edward IV, and the Earl of Warwick, the man known as the Kingmaker. The novel takes us through Warwick’s rebellion, the betrayal of George, Duke of Clarence, and ends in 1472 with Richard’s marriage to Anne Neville.

The style of this novel is different from the previous one; rather than being a collection of first person accounts, it is a straightforward third person narrative. This means that Fortune’s Wheel lacks the intimacy of Some Touch of Pity but at the same time it does have a broader scope – this is not just the story of Richard, but also of Edward, George, Warwick, Anne and many other characters. It’s not a very long novel but still manages to give a fair and balanced view of this period of history, bringing each character to life as a real human being with a mixture of good points and bad points.

Although Some Touch of Pity is my favourite of the two books, I enjoyed them both. They could be a good choice for readers new to the period, but in that case I would recommend reading them in chronological rather than publication order to make the timeline easier to follow. Rhoda Edwards also wrote a book on Elizabeth I, None But Elizabeth, which is now on my TBR!

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child was always going to be a hard act to follow and I think my fear that Eowyn Ivey’s second novel would be a disappointment could explain why I’ve been putting off reading it since it was published last year. Including it on my list for the 20 Books of Summer challenge gave me the push that I needed to pick it up and start reading – and I’m pleased to say that, although The Snow Child is still my favourite, there was very little disappointment here!

To the Bright Edge of the World, like Ivey’s first novel, is set in Alaska – but other than that, it’s a very different type of book. It tells the story of Colonel Allen Forrester who, in 1885, is commissioned to lead an expedition with the aim of navigating Alaska’s Wolverine River and charting previously unmapped territory. Through a series of journal entries we are able to join Allen and his small group of companions on their journey and are with them every step of the way as they struggle over difficult terrain, face harsh weather and encounter native tribes. It all feels so authentic that you could easily believe Allen Forrester was a real person and these were his real diaries – actually, he is a fictional character but it seems that Eowyn Ivey based him on a real-life explorer, Lieutenant Henry T. Allen, who led an expedition in that same year up the Copper River (reimagined as the ‘Wolverine River’ in the novel).

Although this book does not have the fairy tale feel of The Snow Child and is much more grounded in reality, myth and folklore still play an important part in the story. As they make their way up the Wolverine River, Allen and his men are followed by an Old Man who is said to be able to fly and are joined by a woman called Nat’aaggi who believes that her husband was an otter.

– They believe it is a thin line separates animal and man, Samuelson said. – They hold that some can walk back & forth over that line, here a man, there a beast.

This is not just Allen’s story, however. It is also the story of Sophie, his wife, who had hoped to join her husband on his adventures but had to settle for being left behind at Vancouver Barracks. Desperately awaiting news, with no way of knowing if Allen is even alive or dead, it’s going to be difficult for Sophie to get through the months ahead. Looking for something to fill her days, she decides to take up photography and develops a passion for her new hobby, going to ever greater lengths to capture photographs of the wildlife and birds she sees around the barracks.

Sophie also keeps a journal, recording her thoughts and feelings so that she can share them with her husband when he returns, and these two journals – Sophie’s and Allen’s – form the bulk of the novel, one set of entries alternating with the other. I was interested in both and although Allen’s may sound much more exciting, I had no preference for one over the other. There were some passages from each journal that I found slightly tedious or where I felt that things were being dragged out for too long, but a few pages later I would be pulled back into the story again. I liked both characters, so that helped!

The 19th century stories of Allen and Sophie are interspersed with contemporary letters exchanged between Walter Forrester, their great-nephew, and Josh Sloan, the curator of a museum in Alaska. Walter has decided to make a gift of the Forrester journals and the other artefacts from the expedition to the museum – and we are given the opportunity to see some of these artefacts, which include photographs, illustrations, newspaper reports and fragments of documents. These are not always presented in chronological order, which is sometimes confusing, but it gives the overall effect of looking through a scrapbook or somebody’s private collection of memorabilia. It was also nice to watch a friendship developing between Walt and Josh, two men of different generations and backgrounds, living many miles apart.

Not knowing very much about Alaska and its history, I feel that I’ve learned a lot from this novel, as well as being entertained by a fascinating story.

This is book 9/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (re-read)

Sometimes re-reading a favourite book can be a disappointment; perhaps you’ve changed too much as a person since the last time you read it and the story and characters no longer have the appeal they used to have – or maybe it just loses some of its magic because you’ve read other books in the meantime that are similar and better. Luckily, I experienced none of that disappointment when I picked up Rebecca for a re-read recently. I fell in love with it all over again!

For those of you who have not yet read Rebecca, I’ll give a brief summary of the plot – and the first thing I should probably say is that we never actually meet Rebecca herself. She dies a year before the novel opens, although with her bright and vibrant personality she is a very strong presence throughout. Our narrator, in contrast, is a shy and awkward young woman who remains nameless from beginning to end; our only clue is that she has a ‘lovely and unusual’ name and one which is difficult to spell. It is while working as a companion to the overbearing Mrs Van Hopper in Monte Carlo that the narrator meets and falls in love with Rebecca’s widowed husband, Maxim de Winter, who is thought still to be grieving for his wife. The last thing she expects, then, is to receive a proposal of marriage from Maxim and to be whisked off back to England to his house in Cornwall.

Although the narrator is captivated by the magnificence of her new home, Manderley, and its beautiful surroundings, she also feels intimidated and out of place. She knows that Rebecca lived here with Maxim for years and that Rebecca was so much better at everything than she will ever be – something the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, won’t let her forget. It’s not long before the narrator begins to tell herself that her marriage is a mistake…she’s convinced that Maxim still loves Rebecca, but is there more to this situation than meets the eye?

I’m not sure whether this is the third or the fourth time I have read Rebecca, but I do know that it must be at least ten years since I read it last – long enough that I can remember the outline of the plot but not every little detail. Reading it again was a wonderful experience, right from the famous opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. As I’ve said before, du Maurier is one of the most atmospheric writers I’ve ever come across; she makes it so easy to picture every scene in vivid detail. All of her novels are beautifully written, but this one particularly so.

I know a lot of readers find the second Mrs de Winter frustrating, but I have never had a problem with her, probably because when I first read this book as a teenager I was also a shy, sensitive person so I found it easy to understand and sympathise with her. It’s worth remembering that she is only twenty-one, completely alone in the world (to the point where, when she sits down at her new writing desk at Manderley, she can think of no one to write to but Mrs Van Hopper) and has never been taught to manage servants, host a party or do any of the other things that are suddenly required of her. Not everyone can be as confident as Rebecca, after all, and it is the narrator’s sense of inferiority whenever Rebecca is mentioned which drives the plot forward and adds to the feeling of tension and claustrophobia.

I didn’t care for Maxim this time round, though. I know his distant, brooding nature is as important to the plot as his wife’s uncertainty and paranoia – and if they had been different people the story would not have worked – but I thought he could have been much more supportive of her, particularly after (trying not to spoil too much here) the white dress scene. It’s sad that she seems so much more comfortable and at ease with Maxim’s friend, Frank Crawley, than she does with her own husband. On the other hand, I felt slightly more sympathetic towards Mrs Danvers this time; I can see that she’s much more complex than I’d thought on my earlier reads.

Finally, I want to say that this is one of the few cases where I think the film (the 1940 one with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier) is as good as the book. What do you think?

This re-read means that I’m coming to the end of a little project I have been working on over the last few years. In 2009, having previously only read Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, I decided I wanted to read the rest of du Maurier’s novels and I have now read all of them, with the exception of Castle Dor which I’m hoping to read soon (after I’ve read that one I’ll do a round-up post and pick out some of my favourites). I do still have some of her short story collections and most of her non-fiction books to look forward to, though!

This is book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer – and also book 99/100 from my Classics Club list.