More mini-reviews: The Sea Road West; Circle of Pearls; The Silver Swan

Time for another trio of mini-reviews! I’ll start with The Sea Road West, a 1975 novel by Scottish author Sally Rena. Set in a small community in the Scottish Highlands, the novel begins with the death of the parish priest, Father Macabe. It’s not long before a replacement arrives, but Father James, being young, idealistic and English, is not quite what the people of Kintillo were expecting. Struggling to settle into his new home and job, Father James is sure that he is destined to remain an outsider; the only person with whom he feels any connection is Meriel, the granddaughter of the elderly Laird. As his relationship with Meriel develops, there is a sense that it can only end in tragedy for everyone concerned.

I found this a strange and atmospheric story. Although it’s short enough to be read in just a few sittings, the pace is slow, with not much actually happening until the final pages. Instead, the focus is on the characters; there are not many of them, but as well as Father James and Meriel and her family, we get to know Miss Morag, the eccentric housekeeper obsessed with memories of Father Macabe, and Magnus Laver, a retired doctor with an unhappy past who lives alone in a tiny cottage and seeks solace in alcohol. They are not a particularly likeable assortment of characters and the overall tone of the novel is quite a sad, melancholy one. There are some nice descriptions of the Scottish countryside and coastline, though, and an exploration of one of my favourite themes – the coming of change and progress to a community which still clings to the old ways and old traditions.

The Sea Road West was an interesting read, but the next book I’m going to write about here, Circle of Pearls by Rosalind Laker, was more to my taste. Set in 17th century England and spanning the eventful period of history from the end of the Civil War through to the Restoration, the plague and the Great Fire of London, this is the story of the Pallisters, a Royalist family who live at Sotherleigh Manor in Sussex. Being on the losing side in the war, the family go through a great deal of turmoil during the years of Oliver Cromwell’s rule before King Charles II is restored to the throne and their fortunes change again.

There are several romantic threads to the story; our heroine, Julia Pallister, is in love with her brother’s friend, who happens to be Christopher Wren, the architect and scientist who would become famous for redesigning St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire, but she is also romantically involved with the son of a neighbouring Roundhead colonel. Meanwhile, Julia’s brother Michael rescues a young woman from being hanged and brings her home to go into hiding at Sotherleigh – but before their relationship has a chance to go anywhere, he is forced to flee the country for exile in France. There’s more to the story than the romance, though. I loved the drama of the plague and Fire sections, the triumphant return of Charles II to London, and the descriptions of the ribbon-making business Julia establishes.

On the negative side, I thought the book felt longer than it needed to be and there were too many changes of perspective, sometimes several times within the same page, making it hard to become fully absorbed early on. Although I did enjoy Circle of Pearls, I think it suffered from being read too soon after Pamela Belle’s excellent Wintercombe, which is also set in an English country house during the Civil War and which, in my opinion, is a better book.

Back to a modern day setting with the final book I want to discuss in this post, Elena Delbanco’s The Silver Swan, one that I think will particularly appeal to classical music lovers, although with a plot involving secrets, lies and family drama, there’s enough to interest non-musical readers too.

When Mariana’s father, the world-famous cellist Alexander Feldmann, dies just days after his ninetieth birthday in 2010, Mariana expects to inherit his beloved cello, a Stradivarius known affectionately as the Silver Swan. However, when the will is read, she is shocked to learn that he has left the valuable instrument to Claude Roselle, one of his former students. The fate of the cello brings Mariana and Claude together and as they get to know each other and to understand the reasons for Alexander’s choice, Mariana must decide whether or not she is ready to give up her claim to the Swan.

The Silver Swan is not a bad novel – it’s quite a pageturner in fact – but I finished it with a mixture of positive and negative feelings. Half of the novel is written from Mariana’s perspective and half from Claude’s (in the form of alternating chapters) which I thought worked well as they are both equally important to the story. However, I struggled to engage with either of them; they didn’t seem like real people to me, although that could be partly because the world they live in is so different from my own that I just couldn’t identify with them. There are some plot twists, but I found them too easy to predict and wasn’t at all surprised when the truth was revealed. Anyway, this was a quick read and one that I enjoyed without feeling that it was anything special.

Have you read any of these? Do any of them tempt you?

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

This wonderful story of a young woman with a passion for aviation is the first book I’ve read by Rebecca Mascull, but I enjoyed it so much I will certainly be going back to read her previous two novels. Set in the Lincolnshire town of Cleethorpes in the first two decades of the 20th century, The Wild Air is both fascinating and inspirational, with a heroine I loved and connected with immediately.

Her name is Cordelia Dobbs – Della for short – and her interest in flying begins at the age of fourteen when her Great Aunt Betty comes home from America, where she has lived for the last twenty years. Della is a quiet girl who often feels overshadowed by her more attractive and talented siblings, but things begin to change with Betty’s arrival. As the sister of a railway engineer, during her time in North Carolina Betty has been paying special attention to all the latest developments in engineering and flight and has even had the opportunity to see the planes produced by the famous Wright brothers.

Seeing that she has a kindred spirit in Della, Betty takes the girl under her wing (pun intended) and together they take part in kite-flying sessions on the beach while making plans to design their own flying machine one day. Despite the disapproval of her father, Della is determined to turn her hobby into a career and become an aviatrix – a female pilot. It isn’t easy – on approaching a flying instructor to ask for lessons, Della is told that ‘the air is not the place for a woman’ – but now that her mind is made up, she will stop at nothing to achieve her ambition.

I don’t personally share the characters’ love of aviation, but their enthusiasm – and the author’s – shines through on every page. Even though the descriptions of Della’s flights and the technical details of planes and flying didn’t always interest me, I could tell that they fascinated Della and that was all that mattered. I could also appreciate how much research Rebecca Mascull must have carried out to be able to write so convincingly about the subject. She brings each scene to life so well: visiting the Blackburn School of Flying on the beach at Filey, an air show Della attends with Auntie Betty – and her first flight as a passenger with the Belgian aviatrix Hélène Dutrieu, going through the full range of emotions from fear to wonder during this amazing experience. I know I would never have been brave enough to do what Della did; bearing in mind how new aeroplanes were at that time, how unreliable they could be, and that accidents – often fatal – did happen, I’m sure I would have been terrified to go up alone in one. We owe so much to these early pioneers of aviation who were prepared to take risks and try something new.

I wondered at first whether Della was a real person, but I quickly discovered that she wasn’t. However, I didn’t mind at all that I was reading about a fictional aviator rather than a real one; it allowed the author to take the story in different directions and develop personal storylines and relationships for Della without worrying about sticking to biographical facts. I loved the relationship that forms between Della and Auntie Betty as this quiet, reserved girl finds someone with whom she shares a bond and something she can put her heart and soul into. One of the most interesting relationships, though, is the one Della has with her father, Pop, a former actor who has been left angry and bitter after an injury brought his theatrical career to an end. Della feels that Pop has never shown her any love or encouragement and as the story progressed I kept hoping that the two of them would find a way to understand and accept each other.

In the second half of the book, World War I dominates as several of Della’s loved ones go off to fight and Della herself searches for ways in which she can play a part. Towards the end of the war, things take a dramatic turn and, without going into details and spoiling the story, this was the only part of the novel that I thought stretched the imagination a bit too far…until I decided that actually it was consistent with Della’s personality and just the sort of thing she would try to do. If I haven’t already made it clear, I loved this book – and now I really must read The Visitors and Song of the Sea Maid sooner rather than later!

This post is part of a blog tour for The Wild Air. For more reviews and features, please see the tour schedule below. And thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of the book for review via NetGalley.

Elizabeth Goudge Day: Towers in the Mist

I have Lory of The Emerald City Book Review to thank for introducing me to the work of Elizabeth Goudge. Last year, for her Elizabeth Goudge Day (hosted on the author’s birthday, 24th April) I read The White Witch, and the year before I read The Child from the Sea. I loved both so there was no question of not taking part again this year – and I had high hopes for my third Goudge novel, Towers in the Mist, which was first published in 1937.

Not all of Goudge’s novels are historical, but it’s the historical ones that I’ve been drawn to first. Towers in the Mist is set in Oxford in the Elizabethan period and, like the other two I’ve read, it’s a truly beautiful novel. It begins on May Day with Faithful Crocker’s first sight of the “fragile city spun out of dreams, so small that he could have held it on the palm of his hand and blown it away into silver mist”. At the age of fourteen, Faithful has found himself alone in the world and has made his way to Oxford where he hopes to achieve his ambition of becoming a scholar and attending university. With no money, no friends and not even any decent clothes to wear, this may seem unlikely, but Faithful’s fortunes improve when he catches the eye of Canon Leigh of Christ Church, who takes him into his household and treats him as one of the family.

Following the death of his wife several years earlier, Canon Leigh has been left to raise his children alone and most of the responsibility has fallen on his eldest daughter, Joyeuce. Joyeuce is devoted to her younger brothers and sisters, but when student Nicolas de Worde enters her life, she will have to decide what is more important to her. We also follow the stories of the domestically-minded Grace, who longs to step out of her sister Joyeuce’s shadow and take control of the Leigh household, and of four-year-old Diccon, who is thought to have been switched at birth as he is so different in looks and temperament to the rest of the family. These are the people with whom Faithful will build his new life, sharing in their small everyday dramas – such as the chaos of the Spring Wash – as well as the larger ones which affect the entire city and university.

I loved getting to know Faithful and the Leighs (and Nicolas, who ended up being one of my favourite characters after undergoing a bit of a transformation which I hadn’t expected at the beginning) but there are also several real historical figures from the Elizabethan age who play a part in the story. The most prominent are the poet Philip Sidney and the poet/explorer Walter Raleigh who, at the time during which the novel is set, are both young men attending university along with Faithful, Nicolas and Giles Leigh. I loved the contrast between the two characters – the flamboyant, daring Raleigh and the quiet, sensitive Sidney – and I enjoyed the little insights we are given into the work of a poet: “The loveliest phrases are winged, and when the poet opens the door of the place where he put them he finds that the tiresome creatures have flown away.”

Each chapter opens with a passage from a poem by Sidney, Raleigh or another 16th century poet and I thought this was a nice touch which helped to set the mood for the story. Goudge admits in her note at the beginning that not everything in the book will be entirely accurate historically, but I think she is very successful at capturing the overall feel of the Elizabethan period even if it may not be correct in every detail.

Towers in the Mist is a lovely book, but it does have a few flaws and could be too sentimental for many modern day readers. Although the descriptions of Oxford are beautiful and Goudge’s own love for the place shines through, sometimes she goes into long digressions on the history of the city and university which add very little to the plot – you either have the patience for that sort of thing or you don’t. As with the other Goudge novels I’ve read, there’s also a strong religious element which won’t be for everyone either (in fact, it’s not really for me, although it didn’t bother me at all when there was so much else to enjoy).

So, that’s three books by Elizabeth Goudge that I’ve read now and three that I’ve loved. Which one should I read next?

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

For many years, Amaterasu has been grieving for the loss of her daughter and grandson, believed to have been killed when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Even now, Amaterasu still struggles with the feeling of guilt – why did she survive when they did not? – and with the need to find someone to blame. When a stranger comes to her door, claiming to be her lost grandson Hideo, she is unable to believe that it’s truly him. To prove he really is who he says he is, he gives Amaterasu a package of diaries and letters which shed some light on what happened all those years ago and help her to decide whether this man could possibly be Hideo.

As Amaterasu sits and reads the papers she has been given, she is forced to revisit moments from the past which she would rather forget and in the process comes to know more about her daughter Yuko than she did while she was alive. It’s obvious from the start that the villain of the story, as far as Amaterasu is concerned, is Jomei Sato, Yuko’s lover, but we don’t know at first why she dislikes him so much and why she believes he played a part in her daughter’s death. Before we can make sense of the chain of events that led to Yuko standing in a cathedral in Nagasaki which was destroyed when the bomb fell, we have to go back in time to see the beginnings of Yuko’s relationship with Sato – and then further back again to discover Amaterasu’s own personal story and to understand what makes her feel the way she does.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is a beautifully written novel dealing with a subject which I’m sure must have been difficult and emotional to research and to write about. Although Jackie Copleton didn’t actually live through the bombing of Nagasaki herself, her descriptions of the bombing (or pikadon, from the Japanese words for flash and boom) and its aftermath are vivid, intense and shocking. This is not just a novel about war, however. The events of that terrible day in August 1945 are just one part of the story, along with other topics and themes such as family, love, forgiveness and how different people cope with loss and heartbreak.

My knowledge of Japanese history and culture is very limited so I can’t really comment on the accuracy of the novel, apart from to say that it all seemed convincing enough to me! Every chapter begins with a Japanese word or term and its English translation, each one giving us some insight into one small aspect of Japanese life. Sometimes the relevance of the word and its definition to the chapter which follows is obvious, but sometimes I had to think about why a particular word was chosen to represent a particular chapter.

This was an interesting read (especially as it’s one of my goals to read more historical fiction set in Japan) but, with the exception of the pikadon chapter, I didn’t find it quite as moving as I’d expected. This could partly be because of the structure of the novel – the story takes the form of Amaterasu’s memories interspersed with short extracts from Yuko’s diaries and Sato’s letters, and this meant that I was always very aware that I was reading about events that were already in the past, rather than actually being there with the characters sharing their experiences as they happened. I think it might have been this lack of immediacy which stopped me from fully connecting with the characters on an emotional level.

Still, I thought this was a very impressive novel, particularly as it is Jackie Copleton’s first. I would say that I enjoyed it, but ‘enjoyed’ is not really the right word to use given the subject of the book. Instead I’ll say that it is fascinating, gripping and informative and I would be very happy to read more books by this author.

Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian

The fifth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series and probably my favourite so far! For once I found that I was able to follow everything that was happening – the nautical parts are finally becoming easier to understand and, now that I’m five books in, the characters are starting to feel like old friends. If you’re not familiar yet with the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, you may like to read my review of the first in the series – Master and Commander; otherwise, I have made the rest of this post as spoiler-free as possible, but can’t help referring to certain characters and elements of the previous four books.

Like most, if not all, of the books in the series so far, this one begins on land. Jack Aubrey is in a much better position financially than he was in at the beginning of the previous novel, The Mauritius Command, and is able to provide a comfortable home for his wife Sophie and their expanding family (the twins now have a baby brother called George). It seems that trouble could be on the horizon, however, as less scrupulous men prepare to take advantage of Jack’s open, trusting nature, and much as Sophie loves her husband, she knows he needs to get back to sea again as quickly as possible. An opportunity soon arises when Jack is asked to take command of HMS Leopard on a voyage to Australia to assist the notorious Captain Bligh (of mutiny on the Bounty fame) who is having difficulties in his new position as Governor of New South Wales.

Stephen Maturin is joining Jack on the Leopard as ship’s surgeon, but there is another reason for his presence on the voyage which has not been revealed to Jack. The ship is carrying a cargo of convicts to Australia and among them is a beautiful female prisoner, Mrs Wogan, who is suspected of being an American spy. Stephen has been asked to keep an eye on her throughout the journey to see if he can catch her in the act of espionage. This mission is of particular interest to Stephen because Mrs Wogan is a friend of Diana Villiers, the woman he loves, who has fled to America after also being accused of spying.

I’ve enjoyed all of the previous four books in the series (some more than others) but I struggled at times with the last one, The Mauritius Command, because of the large proportion of the book devoted to naval battles. I didn’t have that problem with Desolation Island. Although there is a sea chase and a brief battle – involving the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid – this forms a relatively small part of the story. Instead, there is more focus on the daily lives of the people aboard the ship and the challenges and dangers they face on a long voyage. The crew consider the Leopard (or “the horrible old Leopard” as they call it) to be an unlucky ship and it does seem to be living up to its reputation with rumours of a ghost aboard, a sickness which breaks out amongst the prisoners and a close encounter with an iceberg!

Another reason I preferred this novel to the previous one is that more time was spent on the personal relationships between the characters. I didn’t feel that we saw much of Jack and Stephen together in The Mauritius Command, but in this book they have more opportunities to talk and to indulge their shared love of music. With some of the misfortunes that befall the Leopard towards the end of the book, Jack needs all the loyal friends he can get! With Jack kept in the dark about the true reasons for Mrs Wogan’s presence on the ship, Stephen is unable to confide in him as much as he would like to and is left to wrestle privately with his feelings regarding Mrs Wogan and her connections with Diana. With most of the novel spent at sea, he doesn’t have as many chances to observe the flora and fauna as usual, but once they reach the shores of Desolation Island, he is able to study albatrosses, seals and penguins.

There’s so much left unresolved at the end of this book that I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m tempted to pick up the next one, The Fortune of War. With Jack’s mission incomplete and the War of 1812 about to begin, I’m looking forward to seeing how the story continues!

To Sleep No More by Deryn Lake

I had never come across Deryn Lake’s books until recently, but it seems that she has written a large number of historical fiction novels, detective stories and romances, published from the 1980s to the present day. I decided to try To Sleep No More, a book which first appeared in 1987 under the name Dinah Lampitt and has now been reissued by Endeavour Press as a Deryn Lake novel. It’s an unusual book as it feels almost like three separate novels in one, but with some very important links between the three and all set in the same small community – the village of Mayfield in Sussex.

We begin in the 14th century with the story of Oriel de Sharndene, whose father marries her off to the innocent and childlike Colin, brother of Archbishop John de Stratford. As she tries to settle into married life at Maghefeld Palace, Oriel finds that although she is fond of her husband and captivated by his extraordinary musical abilities, their marriage is never going to be a very satisfying one. The man she truly loves is Marcus de Flaviel, a squire from Gascony who has recently arrived in England and has been appointed companion to Colin by the Archbishop. Colin likes Marcus almost as much as Oriel does, and for a while the three are quite happy. Eventually, though, Oriel’s relationship with the Gascon squire leads to tragedy and at that point the first part of the novel ends.

Moving forward to the year 1609, we find ourselves in the village of Mayfield (formerly Maghefeld) again – and with a new set of characters to get to know. This time we follow the story of Jenna Casselowe who decides to resort to magic to win the heart of the man she loves, Benjamin Mist. Jenna needs to be careful – if anyone finds out what she has been doing she risks being accused of witchcraft. Finally, there’s a third story set early in the 18th century, when the roads and beaches of Sussex are alive with illegal activity. Lieutenant Nicholas Grey arrives in Mayfield on the trail of highwayman Jacob Challice and a gang of smugglers – could another chain of events be about to be set in motion which will again have tragic consequences?

Three stories which all seem very different at first, but as you continue to read some of the parallels and connections start to emerge, although others are not clear until the end of the book. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything (as it’s clearly stated in the blurb) to say that reincarnation is involved and that characters we meet in one time period correspond with characters from another. It’s not always clear who is who as they don’t necessarily keep the same appearance, sex or position in society from one life to the other, but if you’re patient there are eventually enough clues to be able to fit the pieces together.

I have to admit, when I first started to read To Sleep No More I didn’t expect to be very impressed by it (maybe it was the cover of the new edition that gave me that impression) but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Although it took me a while to adjust to each new story – as I’ve said, it’s almost like reading three different novels in the same book – and a lot of concentration is needed to keep track of the characters and who they may have been in a previous life, it’s not quite as confusing as it all sounds!

Each section of the book has its own sense of time and place reflecting the different era and the changes in language, culture and attitudes over the centuries. It was obvious that the author had done a lot of research into the local history of the area and into each period in general, although I was not convinced by the work of a doctor who, towards the end of the novel, is carrying out experiments involving hypnosis and regression – his methods were surely too scientific for 1721. On the other hand, without that particular plot development it’s difficult to see how else the various threads of the story could have been pulled together.

Reading Deryn Lake’s author’s note at the end of the book, I was surprised to see how many of the secondary characters and events in the three stories were based on historical fact. For example, Alice Casselowe, Jenna’s aunt in the novel, really was accused of witchcraft and there really was a gang of smugglers operating in Mayfield in the 1720s. The author also incorporates the legend of St Dunstan (allegedly Mayfield’s founder) into the story, with several characters seeing ghostly visions of a monk working at a forge. The supernatural elements of the story are usually quite subtle, though, and are used sparingly to add to the eerie atmosphere of the novel.

Have you read any of Deryn Lake/Dinah Lampitt’s novels? What did you think?

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Years ago now, certainly before I started blogging, I read The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova’s novel based on the legend of Dracula. It had sounded like the sort of book I would enjoy, but I remember being disappointed, although I can’t recall the reasons why. I didn’t read her next novel, The Swan Thieves, but when I heard about this latest one, The Shadow Land, I decided it was time to give Kostova another try. That was a good decision, because I found this to be a moving, powerful and beautifully written novel and I liked it much more than The Historian.

The Shadow Land is set in Bulgaria, beginning in 2008 when a young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, arrives in the country’s capital city of Sofia, where she will be starting a new job as a teacher at the Central English Institute. Discovering that she has arrived at the wrong hotel, she stands outside to wait for a taxi and here she falls into conversation with a family consisting of an elderly couple and another younger man who are also leaving the hotel. It’s not until Alexandra is sitting in her taxi, on her way to her destination, that she discovers she has picked up a bag belonging to the elderly people. Looking inside, she is horrified to find that she is now in possession of an urn engraved with the name Stoyan Lazarov and containing somebody’s ashes.

Instructing her taxi driver, Bobby, to take her to the nearest police station, Alexandra hopes this will be the end of the matter, but when the police prove to be less helpful than she’d expected, she decides to find the family and return the urn to them herself. She knows what it’s like to grieve for a loved one – her brother Jack disappeared on a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains several years earlier – and she wants to make her apologies in person. However, the family of Stoyan Lazarov appear to have disappeared almost without trace…and it seems that somebody else is also searching for the urn.

With Bobby’s help, Alexandra travels around Bulgaria from town to town, trying to pick up the trail of Stoyan’s family and in each place she visits she learns a little bit more about the man whose ashes she is carrying. I have to admit, I found this quite unconvincing as I’m sure most of us would just have handed the urn in to the hotel reception or insisted on leaving it with the police – and even if we had decided to track the people down ourselves, it’s unlikely that a taxi driver we’d only just met would agree to come with us! The implausibility of this central plot point, however, didn’t really bother me because I was already enjoying the story so much.

Having the action moving from one location to another also gives Kostova an opportunity to describe the feel and appearance of various Bulgarian towns and villages and to capture the beauty of the countryside. Because we’re seeing all of this through Alexandra’s eyes, we can appreciate what it’s like to be exploring a new country for the first time, unable to speak the language and with no knowledge of local customs and traditions. As for Bobby, I loved him and, unlikely as it might have seemed, I was glad that he decided to abandon his usual routine and join Alexandra on her mission.

The Shadow Land really is a fascinating novel. It begins with a simple idea – a person accidentally taking something which doesn’t belong to them and then trying to return it – and slowly expands into an examination of Bulgaria’s history, of war, communism and political unrest, and of one man’s courage in the face of unimaginable horrors. I wish I could go into more detail, but I would rather let you read about Stoyan Lazarov’s experiences for yourself. It’s a very dark novel in places, particularly later in the book as Stoyan’s story begins to unfold, but it’s an important story and, despite the darkness, I think it’s one that needs to be told.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.