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!)

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Soot by Andrew Martin

You know when you can tell as soon as you start reading that you’re going to enjoy a book? That’s how I felt about Soot, Andrew Martin’s new historical mystery set in 18th century York. The plot, the characters, the atmosphere, the writing style…I loved them all!

Let’s start with the plot, then. In August 1798, Matthew Harvey, a painter of silhouettes, is found dead – stabbed with his own scissors – in his house in Coney Street, York. Assuming that suicide can be ruled out, the only suspects are the six sitters who visited him during the previous week. The problem is, the page on which Harvey recorded their names has been torn out of his ledger, so that the only remaining clues are Harvey’s private duplicates of the silhouettes – or ‘shades’, as they are known.

Fletcher Rigge, a young gentleman who has found himself in financial difficulties, has spent three months in debtors’ prison in York Castle when he is approached by Captain Harvey, the silhouette-maker’s son. The Captain makes him an offer he can’t refuse: he will arrange Rigge’s release from prison, on the condition that Rigge can identify the people in the shades and help to track down the murderer. Rigge has previously used his detection skills to locate a missing book while working at Skelton’s Bookshop – this is what brought him to the Captain’s attention – but finding a killer could prove to be somewhat more difficult than finding a book…

As Rigge attempts to trace the people in the silhouettes, his search brings him into contact with a variety of colourful characters, including the clever and resourceful Maria Sampson, the temperamental young actor Jeremiah Smith – and my favourite, the London-based author Samuel Gowers, a proud, pompous man with an unfortunately large nose which lends itself to some comic scenes à la Cyrano de Bergerac. Rigge himself is another intriguing character, described at the beginning as having ‘a lowness of spirits, offset by a mordant wit and a prideful obstinacy’. Due to the structure of the book (more on that shortly) I was never quite sure exactly how reliable his narration was, but I did end up liking him and enjoyed accompanying him on his travels around York and beyond.

Georgian York provides a wonderfully atmospheric setting for the novel, particularly when covered in a blanket of snow (Rigge’s investigations take place in winter). From the slums of First Water Lane, home to Captain Harvey, to the Theatre Royal, the Black Swan coaching inn and the elegant townhouse belonging to one of the suspects, everything is vividly described. The language used in the book is appropriate for the 18th century too; I could tell the author had taken a lot of care to try to choose the right words and turns of phrase. This is particularly important because the book is presented as a collection of authentic documents gathered together by attorney-at-law Mr Erskine and sent to the Chief Magistrate of York.

Most of the novel is in the form of extracts taken from Fletcher Rigge’s own diary, but there are also diary entries written by Captain Harvey’s mistress Esther, newpaper reports, interviews with witnesses conducted by Erskine’s clerk, Mr Bright, and commentary from Erskine himself. Andrew Martin uses this structure very effectively to keep the reader guessing and wondering which accounts are reliable and which are not. The solution to the mystery is certainly not as black and white as Matthew Harvey’s shades!

Soot is a great book. At first Fletcher Rigge’s story reminded me of Thomas Hawkins’ in The Devil in the Marshalsea, but it quickly developed into something different and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. Now I’m hoping for a sequel!

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

Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull

Having had such a good experience with my first Rebecca Mascull book, The Wild Air, I knew I would have to read her previous two novels as well – and I was delighted to see Song of the Sea Maid on the shelf on a recent visit to the library. I hoped I would love it as much as The Wild Air…and I did. In fact, I thought this one was even better.

Song of the Sea Maid begins with a little girl living on the streets of London with only one aim in life: to do whatever it takes to survive from one day to the next. When her sole friend and companion, an older boy who may or may not be her brother, is taken by a press gang, she finds herself all alone. Caught attempting to commit a desperate act – stealing from a gentleman – she expects to be punished, but instead she is taken to an orphanage where she is given food, shelter and the name Dawnay Price.

Dawnay is an intelligent child with a natural curiosity for the world around her. As she grows older and teaches herself to read and write, her thirst for knowledge becomes apparent and she is chosen by a generous benefactor to receive a full education. It is not at all common at this time for a girl to be educated beyond the absolute basics, so Dawnay is determined to make the most of the opportunities she has been given. Eager for new experiences and the chance to use her skills, she travels to Portugal and the Berlengas islands where her studies of the flora and fauna lead her to come up with some very controversial theories. It seems the 18th century world is not quite ready for Dawnay and her ideas!

Song of the Sea Maid is a wonderful exploration of what it was like to be a woman trying to forge a career in science in a period when it was not considered normal or socially acceptable to do so. Dawnay has a lot of good luck which enables her to indulge her passion for study and travel, but she also faces many obstacles in both carrying out her work and in making her findings known, and by the end of the novel it becomes clear that she really is, as Rebecca Mascull states in her author’s note, just the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. It made me wonder about all the other people – women in particular, but men as well – throughout history who may have had innovative ideas or developed advanced theories but were dismissed and silenced so that their names and their views have been entirely forgotten today.

I also enjoyed reading about the various places Dawnay visits on her travels; her time spent alone on the Berlengas Islands is particularly interesting – I think I would have felt too isolated and lonely, but Dawnay finds peace and harmony there, coming to think of the rocks and caves as her own. Still, she is unable to completely escape from world events; she is in Lisbon for the Great Earthquake of 1755 (which I have previously read about in Linda Holeman’s The Devil on Her Tongue) and in Minorca a year later when the island is captured by the French. The Seven Years’ War forms an important backdrop to the novel and from time to time Dawnay is brought into contact with the crew of a Royal Navy ship, initially during her voyage to Portugal. I found all the ship-based scenes surprisingly enjoyable – I think my recent forays into Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series have really helped me in this respect!

I haven’t mentioned yet that Dawnay also falls in love; I found it quite predictable – as soon as one particular character appeared in Dawnay’s life I knew that they were going to be the love interest – but it was still a beautifully written romance which developed slowly throughout the novel. There’s really nothing negative I can say about Song of the Sea Maid; even the use of first person present tense, which I often dislike, didn’t bother me – in fact, I barely noticed it because I found Dawnay’s voice so strong and real.

This is a lovely novel and now I really must read Rebecca Mascull’s first book, The Visitors!

The Empress of Hearts by E. Barrington

The Empress of Hearts was originally published in 1928 and was one of several historical novels written by E. Barrington (a pseudonym of Elizabeth Louisa Moresby, who also wrote under the name Lily Adams Beck).  It is described on the cover as “a romance of Marie Antoinette”, but I think that description is slightly misleading.  Marie Antoinette does appear in the novel as a major character, but the focus is really on the scandal known as The Affair of the Diamond Necklace which was thought to be a factor leading to the French Revolution.    
  
The story centres around a diamond necklace created by the Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge, commissioned by Louis XV of France in 1772 as a gift for his mistress, Madame du Barry.  However, by the time the necklace is ready to be sold to the King, Louis has died and du Barry has been sent away from court.  Boehmer and Bassenge hope the new Queen, Marie Antoinette, will wear it instead, but when her husband, Louis XVI, offers to buy it for her, she refuses, unwilling to appear extravagant and frivolous when the money could be better spent on other things.  Enter Jeanne de la Motte, an ambitious young woman who sees an opportunity to make herself rich and acquire the necklace for herself in the Queen’s name.  The ensuing scandal will damage Marie Antoinette’s reputation and discredit the French monarchy in the eyes of the public:        

Marie Antoinette rose from her chair and moved toward the inner room, holding herself together with an effort so tense that for the moment grace was dead and she moved with stiff, short steps like an old woman. At the door she turned: “Did I not tell you that there would be no need for poison? They will kill me with calumny.”

As you would expect with a book from the 1920s, the writing style is rather different from most modern historical fiction novels; it is more formal and more detailed but, unfortunately, it is also quite dry.  Although I had heard of the Diamond Necklace Affair before, I hadn’t read about it in any depth, so I found The Empress of Hearts an interesting read from that perspective, but as a work of fiction it is less effective – like the other novel I’ve read by Barrington, Glorious Apollo, it would probably have worked better as non-fiction.  We are given large amounts of factual information and as a result the plot moves very slowly and lacks the drama, excitement and tension that should have been present given the subject of the story. 

The characters are not the most vibrant and life-like either, although they had the potential to be fascinating, particularly Jeanne, as the villain of the novel, and Cardinal de Rohan, another prominent figure implicated in the plot.  I was intrigued by the role the Italian occultist Alessandro Cagliostro plays in the story – in reality, it seems that although he was arrested and questioned, it’s uncertain how much involvement he actually had in the Affair – but again, I think there were missed opportunities here.

I’m aware that Alexandre Dumas also wrote a novel about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace – The Queen’s Necklace.  As a fan of Dumas, I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing how he approaches the same subject.

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?

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

It’s 1746 and Richard Smith has just arrived in New York bearing a bill of credit for one thousand pounds. Presenting this to be cashed at the counting-house of the merchant Lovell on Golden Hill Street, the mysterious Smith causes quite a sensation. Who is he and where has he come from? Where is Lovell supposed to find such a huge amount of money? And what does Smith intend to do with it once he has it?

I would like to tell you more about the plot of Golden Hill, but I’m limited as to how much I can say without spoiling things for future readers. I think it’s enough to say that it’s a hugely entertaining story involving duels, card games, imprisonments and a chase across the rooftops of New York. One of the things which makes this book such an enjoyable and compelling read, however, is the air of mystery surrounding Richard Smith from beginning to (almost) end.

“There’s the lovely power of being a stranger,” Smith went on, as pleasant as before. “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’ve a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be. But the bill, sir, is a true one. How may I set your mind at rest?”

His refusal to explain what he is doing in New York and why he needs so much money keeps the other characters – and the reader – guessing until the final pages. Is he really as rich as he seems to be or is he involved in some sort of hoax? Should Lovell trust him or will he be made to look a fool?

Smith’s secretive behaviour arouses both fascination and suspicion among the people he meets. Although he says very little about himself and his past, there is evidence that he has been well educated, travelled extensively in Europe, has a good knowledge of the theatre and an aptitude for dancing, acting and magic tricks – and yet he also makes a number of mistakes and blunders that suggest he may not be as sophisticated as he seems. To complicate things further, Smith soon falls in love with Lovell’s daughter, Tabitha, a character I found just as enigmatic as Smith himself. With her prickly exterior, sharp tongue and often spiteful behaviour, it’s difficult to know how Tabitha really feels about Smith, which is something else to ponder while you read.

Francis Spufford’s writing style is wonderful and perfectly suited to the story and the period; it’s clearly intended to read like an authentic 18th century novel and a lot of care has obviously gone into the choice of words and the way sentences are structured. Sometimes the narrator breaks into the story to speak directly to the reader, passing judgement on the actions of the characters, expressing annoyance (at having to explain the rules of the card game piquet, for example), and making amusing asides and observations. This is the sort of thing I tend to enjoy, although I know not everyone does! The narrative style is not just for show, though – there’s another reason why Spufford has chosen to tell the story in this way, although I didn’t understand until I reached the very end of the book.

Another highlight of the novel is its portrayal of New York at a time when, far from being the major city it is today, it’s a relatively small community still with a significant Dutch influence (seen in the design of the merchants’ houses and the names of the surrounding villages and neighbourhoods – Bouwerij for Bowery and Breuckelen for Brooklyn, for example). It’s a city in its early stages of development, just beginning to expand and prosper, and brought to life through Spufford’s vivid descriptions.

There’s so much to love about this unusual, imaginative novel. I had never heard of Francis Spufford before reading this book, but it seems that although he has written several non-fiction books, Golden Hill is his first novel. Naturally I am hoping that he’ll write more!

Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott

redgauntlet Redgauntlet, one of Scott’s Waverley novels, is set in Scotland and the north of England in 1765, twenty years after the failed Jacobite Rising of 1745. Although the rising was unsuccessful and ended in disaster for Charles Edward Stuart and his supporters, there were still those who dreamed of restoring the exiled Stuarts to the throne. Redgauntlet centres around a fictional third Jacobite Rebellion and the lives of two innocent young men who accidentally become caught up in the plot.

The novel is made up of a mixture of letters, journal entries and first person narrative written from the perspectives of Darsie Latimer and his friend, Alan Fairford. Darsie, an orphan, has grown up in Scotland knowing very little about his family background, aware only that he has been forbidden to cross the border into England until he turns twenty-five, which is also when he will come into his inheritance. The reason for this unusual condition is unknown to Darsie but eventually becomes clear as the story unfolds and the truth about his past is revealed.

Kidnapped on a fishing expedition to the Solway Firth, Darsie discovers that he has fallen into the clutches of the mysterious Hugh Redgauntlet, a former Jacobite who seems to know more about Darsie than Darsie does himself. Help is on its way, however – when Alan Fairford, who is completing his legal studies in Edinburgh, receives a message from a beautiful young lady known only as Green Mantle, warning him that Darsie is in danger, he sets off at once in search of his friend.

Redgauntlet is the third Scott novel I’ve read (the others were Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian) and my favourite so far. In fact, I was ready to name it one of my books of the year until the plot began to fizzle out towards the end, which meant it lost its place on my list. Up to that point, though, I was completely engrossed in the adventures of Darsie and Alan. No, it’s not a particularly easy book to read, and yes, there are some long, dry passages where Scott discusses the politics of the period or describes obscure points of Scottish law, but otherwise I loved it. I loved the setting, the characters, the air of mystery and foreboding, the exciting plot and the way the novel was structured to incorporate different forms of writing and different viewpoints. I particularly enjoyed reading the letters sent between Darsie and Alan in which the personality of each man – the practical, unimaginative Alan and the romantic, adventurous Darsie – come through strongly.

The problem I had with this novel was with the storyline surrounding the third Jacobite Rising. Knowing that it never happened historically took away some of the suspense and Scott didn’t manage to convince me that Redgauntlet’s schemes would ever come to anything. I enjoyed the build-up, but when the rebellion started to come to the forefront of the novel near the end of the book, this was when I lost interest. It all seemed such an anti-climax after sticking with the story through so many pages. Still, the good bits of Redgauntlet are very, very good – my favourite part was Wandering Willie’s Tale, a wonderful ghost story which appears in the middle of the book. It’s worth reading Redgauntlet for this story alone.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Scott’s novels. Having only read three so far, I certainly have plenty left to choose from. If you’ve read any of them, please let me know which you think I should read next. And I would love to hear other readers’ thoughts on Redgauntlet. Brilliant but flawed is my verdict!