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.

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.

Widdershins by Helen Steadman

I like to browse the ebook section of my library’s website from time to time, and I was delighted when, a few weeks ago, I found a newly published historical fiction novel set in the North East of England, which is where I am from. It’s not often I come across anything at all set in this part of the country, so of course I had to read it!

Widdershins, Helen Steadman’s debut novel, is inspired by a real historical event: the witch trials held in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1650 which resulted in either fifteen or sixteen people (including one man) being executed on the city’s Town Moor – the largest number of people in England’s history to be executed for witchcraft in a single day. Steadman takes this as a starting point to create fictional stories for two of the people involved in the trials – one is the Scottish witchfinder responsible for proving whether the witches are guilty or innocent and the other is one of the accused women. Their narratives alternate throughout the book, giving two very different sides of the same story.

The first thread of the novel follows John Sharpe as he grows up in Scotland believing that he was the cause of his mother’s death in childbirth. Dora, the midwife who delivered John into the world, had been unable to save his mother, and listening to his father vent his anger at both Dora and John himself, the boy has been instilled with a deep-rooted resentment and dislike of midwives, healers and women in general. Spending several years under the guardianship of his Uncle James, a pastor, only increases these feelings further and by the time John is an adult, his purpose in life seems clear: to hunt out, denounce and punish any woman he believes to be a witch.

Meanwhile, Jane Chandler is a young woman living in a rural village near Shotley Bridge, several miles away from Newcastle. From her mother Annie and the local ‘green woman’ Meg Wetherby, Jane is learning the healing properties of the herbs and plants which grow in the countryside and how to use them to prepare remedies and treatments to help the people of her village. In the seventeeth century, of course, activities such as these are misunderstood and viewed with suspicion – and when John Sharpe is summoned from Scotland with his special ‘witch-pricking’ device, Jane could find herself in terrible danger.

Both of the main characters in Widdershins have interesting stories to tell and although they seem quite separate at first, they do soon begin to converge. There is a certain sense of inevitability – with one character being a witchfinder and the other engaged in pursuits which could easily be construed as witchcraft, the outcome may seem obvious – but actually, unless you have read up on the trials beforehand, there are a few surprises in store!

John is a truly despicable person and any warmth I may have felt for him as a small frightened child at the beginning of the book quickly disappeared; his sections of the novel are often uncomfortable to read and although I would have preferred a more multi-faceted villain rather than one who was just purely evil, I admired the author’s attempts to get into the head of such an unpleasant individual and provide motivations to explain his actions. Jane, on the other hand, is much easier to like and to sympathise with as she faces one tragedy after another. She is also involved in a subplot following her romance with childhood friend and neighbour Tom Verger and this adds something extra to the story on top of the witchcraft aspect.

Helen Steadman scatters a small amount of dialect throughout both the Scotland and Newcastle chapters of the book, but not enough to cause readers any problems, and actually I would have liked more of it, to give more distinction between the novel’s two settings. I was disappointed that, even bearing in mind how different the landscape of the North East would have been in 1650, Steadman’s descriptions never really brought the area to life in a way that I felt I could recognise. A lot of the action takes place in and around Jane’s village in the Derwent Valley, but it could have been anywhere, and even when her adventures took her into Newcastle or Durham the sense of place wasn’t as strong as I would have expected.

I did enjoy this book, though; it made a nice complement to The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown which I read earlier this year. We should be able to look forward to more books from Helen Steadman; according to her website, she is working on a sequel to Widdershins, as well as two novels about the swordmakers of Shotley Bridge and lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace Darling, a 19th century heroine.

A French Trio: Mediterranean Summer; Eugenie; A Week in Paris

Coincidentally, three of my recent reads have been set in France, so I thought I would combine my thoughts on them into one French-themed post. It’s a good way for me to get through my review backlog too!

Mediterranean Summer by Jane MacKenzie was a nice surprise; a book I knew nothing about, by an author I’d never come across before, but one that I ended up really enjoying. It tells the story of Laure, a young art student who finds herself caught up in the excitement of the 1968 student demonstrations at her university in Paris. When the rebellion is over, with her future as an artist in doubt due to her involvement in the protests, Laure returns home for the summer to her parents’ house in the Mediterranean village of Vermeilla. Here, in the small Catalan community of her childhood, she is reacquainted with old friends as well as making new ones – and with the help of Robert, a lawyer, she begins to search for a way to rescue her career.

This is a lovely summer read; the descriptions of the fictional Vermeilla and the surrounding area are so beautiful I wished I could go and spend the rest of the summer there myself! There’s an interesting selection of characters to get to know too, mostly very likeable, but with one or two who could be considered villains. As for the historical background, I knew almost nothing about the Paris student protests in the 1960s, so I learned something new there, and I was also interested to read about the Nobel dynamite factory in Paulilles and the shocking lack of regard for the health and safety of the employees. I loved Mediterranean Summer and would be happy to try Jane MacKenzie’s previous novels.

The next book I want to talk about takes us further back in time, to the French Revolution. Published in 1917 (originally titled The Third Estate), Eugenie by Marjorie Bowen introduces us to two sisters, Eugenie and Pélagie Haultpenne. Pélagie, the eldest, is heiress to a fortune and, at the beginning of the book, is engaged to a handsome young nobleman, the Marquis de Sarcey. As soon as the Marquis sees her beautiful sister Eugenie, however, Pélagie is forgotten. Can he find a way to be with Eugenie without giving up his claim to the Haultpenne fortune?

I have read a few of Marjorie Bowen’s other historical novels and have found them to vary widely in style and quality. This is not one of the better ones, but despite the off-putting cover, it’s still an entertaining read. The historical aspect of the story is interesting; it focuses less on the Revolution itself than on the factors leading to it, such as the Estates General and the role of the Comte de Mirabeau. This is a novel that you would read more for the plot than because you wanted to learn some history, though. It reminded me slightly of Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase; it’s fun, as long as you don’t mind lots of melodrama, swooning heroines and an anti-hero who is “a creature expert in every vice, used to every dishonour, useless, arrogant, a parasite on the labour of others!”

Finally, I read A Week in Paris by Rachel Hore, a dual timeline novel. One thread of the story is set in 1961 and follows music student Fay Knox who is in Paris for a week with her orchestra. Fay has grown up knowing very little about her early childhood as her mother refuses to talk about it or to tell her what happened to her father, other than that he was killed during the war. However, when memories start coming back to her, she has reason to believe that the first years of her life may have been spent in France. Over the course of her week in Paris, Fay decides to find out the truth about her past – and is shocked by what she discovers. Meanwhile, she is reacquainted with an old friend, Adam, but could he also be hiding secrets?

The other storyline is written from the perspective of Fay’s mother, Kitty, who falls in love with Gene, an American doctor, during World War II. The two end up trapped in occupied Paris – and their actions during this period will have consequences that live on into the next generation.

I found this an enjoyable novel, after a slow start, though not as good as similar books by other authors such as Lucinda Riley or Susanna Kearsley. The 1940s storyline is much more engaging than the 1960s one, not just because of the drama of the war itself, but also because the romance between Kitty and Gene is more convincing than the one between Fay and Adam (and less reliant on coincidence and chance meetings). I really cared about what happened to the wartime characters and was gripped by the details of life in a city under Nazi occupation, but I wouldn’t have minded if the framing story involving Fay had been left out altogether.

Three very different books, but I found different things to like about all of them!

Thanks to Jane MacKenzie for the copy of Mediterranean Summer; the other two were both taken from the outstanding titles on my NetGalley shelf.

Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft

I was drawn to Beneath a Burning Sky by the setting – Egypt in the late 19th century – and comparisons to other authors I’ve enjoyed, such as Victoria Hislop and Dinah Jefferies, made it sound even more appealing. Including it on my 20 Books of Summer list ensured that I got to it quickly but, although I did find a lot to like, I was left with feelings that were much more mixed than I’d hoped.

The plot is an exciting one. It begins shortly after twenty-two-year-old Olivia marries businessman Alistair Sheldon and leaves England to live with him in Egypt, the country where she spent her own early childhood. It’s not long before she becomes aware of the true nature of her cruel, abusive husband, but she is unwilling to admit to anyone just how unhappy her marriage is and devotes herself instead to settling into her new home in Alexandria and to getting to know her sister Clara, with whom she has just been reacquainted after many years.

When Clara disappears on a trip into the city – seemingly abducted from a busy street – Olivia is devastated. This is the second time she has lost her sister and she is determined to do everything she can to rescue her. As she searches for clues to explain Clara’s disappearance, however, she becomes convinced that her own husband, Alistair, may have had something to do with it. It’s a terrible situation to be in and even the one bright spot in Olivia’s life – her relationship with Edward Bertram, Alistair’s lodger – is just another additional complication. As the story unfolds, there is plenty of the “love and betrayal and mystery” promised by the blurb; all the ingredients for a great novel, so I was disappointed that, for me, they didn’t quite come together to form a successful whole.

My biggest problem with the book was the beginning. I found the opening chapters confusing and muddled. A lot of characters seemed to be introduced all at once – and had such involved and eventful backstories that I wondered if this was actually a sequel and if the early lives of Olivia and Clara had already been covered in a previous book (it isn’t and they hadn’t). Things did settle down after a while, but I still felt that some aspects of the plot were never fully explained or resolved.

Although I came to like and care about the two main characters, Olivia and Edward, and wanted them to find some happiness together, I thought the novel’s villains were just too evil to be true. Alistair had no nuances to his character and no redeeming qualities at all, while Olivia and Clara’s grandmother Mildred, a bitter, spiteful woman, had a hatred for her granddaughters which seemed out of proportion to the explanation that was given. There were some interesting characters amongst the Egyptians, though, particularly Nailah, a young woman whose story is linked with Olivia’s in ways which don’t become clear until the end of the book. The decision to write the novel from the perspectives of both Egyptian and British characters provided an opportunity to compare lifestyles and attitudes and to see things from more than one angle.

I didn’t feel that I learned much about the history of the period but, to be fair, it wasn’t really that sort of book. I think it will have more appeal to readers who enjoy romantic suspense rather than those who are looking for a more detailed work of historical fiction – personally I enjoy both, so despite my problems with Beneath a Burning Sky I still liked it enough to keep reading to the end, curious to see what had happened to Clara and whether Olivia and Edward could find a way to be together.

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

This is Book 7/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.