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!

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The Devil on her Tongue by Linda Holeman

The Devil on her Tongue One day in 1745, a Dutch sailor called Arie ten Brink leaves his home on the Portuguese island of Porto Santo and sets sail for Brazil where he hopes to make his fortune. His thirteen-year-old daughter, Diamantina, is heartbroken; left behind on Porto Santo with her mother, a former African slave, life is not easy and she vows to join her father in Brazil one day.

While she waits for a letter saying that he has reached his destination, Diamantina faces struggles with poverty, her mother’s reputation as a witch, and men who are ready to take advantage of a lonely, vulnerable young woman. Eventually an offer of marriage gives Diamantina a chance to escape, but the marriage is not what she would have hoped for and it seems that her ordeals are not yet over.

I love Linda Holeman’s books (I’ve read all of her adult novels apart from her first one, The Linnet Bird) so it was disappointing to find that The Devil on her Tongue was initially published only in Canada. Luckily for me, Traverse Press have now made it available as an ebook, as they did with the previous one, The Lost Souls of Angelkov, so readers in the UK and US are now able to read it as well.

There are a few things I’ve come to expect from Linda Holeman’s novels; one of them is an interesting and unusual historical setting. I know there must be other books set in 18th century Portugal, but this is the first I’ve read; it’s not a common choice for historical fiction and it made a refreshing change. There are some beautiful descriptions of Porto Santo, and later, of Madeira and Lisbon, and we are given insights into what life was like in each of these places. While the focus is on Diamantina’s personal story, it is played out against a historical background that feels well researched and believable. I particularly loved the vivid depiction of the earthquake that destroyed most of Lisbon in 1755.

Another thing I expect is a long, engrossing and emotional story – and that’s what I got from The Devil on her Tongue. But although Diamantina’s story is certainly very compelling, it’s also very sad; I couldn’t believe one person could experience so much misery and have so little luck in life. I felt so sorry for her but I also admired her resilience as she tried to build a new life for herself in the face of so much betrayal, disappointment and unhappiness. One aspect of Holeman’s novels I really like is the way they explore attitudes towards women in different time periods and cultures – in previous books we have seen how women were treated in 19th century India, Afghanistan and Russia, in 1930s Morocco, and now in a small community in Portugal during the 1700s.

I don’t think this is my favourite of Linda Holeman’s novels (that would probably be the book set in Morocco, The Saffron Gate) but it’s beautifully written and I did enjoy reading it, despite finding the story so sad.

Thank you to Traverse Press for providing a copy of this book for review.

Every Secret Thing by Susanna Kearsley

Every Secret Thing is the third book I’ve read by Susanna Kearsley. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the other two – The Rose Garden and Mariana – but that could just be because it’s a different type of novel and didn’t include some of the elements that I loved in the others I’ve read.

Kate Murray is a Canadian journalist who has been sent to London to report on an important criminal trial. While she is there, she meets Andrew Deacon, an old man who tells her he knew her grandmother and that he has an important story to tell her. He invites Kate to come to his hotel for dinner that night, but as he begins to walk away he is hit by a car and is killed. As Kate tries to find out what the connection was between Deacon and her grandmother, more suspicious deaths occur and it seems that someone wants to stop Kate from uncovering any more information. And when Kate’s investigations lead her to Portugal, she finds herself caught up in a wartime mystery involving espionage and murder in 1940s Lisbon.

Every Secret Thing has also been published under the name Emma Cole, presumably as it is a slightly different genre to her other books and might appeal to different readers. The writing style is the same, but although this book does still have a historical storyline told through the recollections of the various people Kate speaks to, there’s no time travel, reincarnation or any of the other paranormal elements that appear in Susanna Kearsley’s other novels. I would describe this book as similar to a Mary Stewart suspense novel. I know I’ve compared Kearsley to Mary Stewart before, but I can’t help mentioning it again because she does remind me of her so much.

One of the things I found interesting about this book was the way it covered so many different aspects of World War II that I didn’t know much about. We find out what life was like for a young woman in New York City during the war, for example, and we are given some insights into what was involved in working for British secret intelligence. We also learn a little bit about all the intrigue and espionage that was taking place in Portugal throughout the war. Lisbon is such a fascinating setting for a World War II novel – as a neutral port, it was a centre of operations for spies and agents from both the Allied and Axis forces and also an important escape route for refugees.

Kate Murray is a likeable narrator but the most memorable character in the book for me was Andrew Deacon. Although he dies right at the beginning of the story, we get to know him through the memories of the other characters whose lives he touched in one way or another, including his secretary Regina Marinho, his nephew James Cavender and of course, Kate’s grandmother. The only problem I really had with this book was that I thought the plot relied too heavily on coincidences and chance meetings. One or two of these in a novel isn’t a problem but when there are too many of them everything starts to feel too convenient and unrealistic. So, not my favourite book by Susanna Kearsley/Emma Cole but I still enjoyed it and if there are going to be more books about Kate Murray I’ll be happy to read them.