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Archive for the ‘Susanna Kearsley’ Category

I am happy to see 2015 go.  I had a productive year but it was a tiring and sombre one.  With friends and family falling ill and passing away with alarming frequency, this was not a year for intensive reading.  Or, some months, any reading at all (I only managed to finish two books in September).  That said, hidden among the comfort reads and mindless fluff that typified my reading this year were some truly excellent books.  Most of which I unfortunately never got around to writing about.  It took fierce concentration to get the list down to ten but here they are:

Top Ten - 310. The Song Collector (2015) – Natasha Solomons
A lovely, gently-paced novel about love, aging, and music.

9. Knight Crusader (1954) – Ronald Welch
I read this historical children’s novel (the first in Welch’s Carey series, currently being reissued by Slightly Foxed) back in January and was so impressed I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.  Welch’s thoughtful character development and rich historical details compliment a rip roaring plot to delight readers of any age.

8. My History (2015) – Antonia Fraser
A breezy, charming memoir about Fraser’s early years.

Top Ten - 27. Iris Origo (2000) – Caroline Moorehead
I adored this biography of Origo, famous for her wartime diary (War in Val d’Orcia – which I’ve yet to read) and her garden at La Foce (which I’ve yet to see).  Moorehead does an incredible job of describing the richly complicated Florentine expat community Origio grew up in and her extraordinarily varied circle of acquaintances, as well as her personal achievements.  There was nothing simple or straightforward about Origio and Moorehead does full justice to her subject’s complex life.  When I visited the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany in September, I was delighted to see for myself the landscapes Moorehead had described and which Origio knew so well.

6. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged (2015) – Ayisha Malik
An entirely unique comedy about the romantic and spiritual plights (often entwined) of a young British Muslim feminist.  It remains the only book that kept me up reading long past my bedtime this year and had me giggling even more often than Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling.

5. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (1992) – Marcella Hazan
An unusual choice for this list but this is easily the book I’ve spent the most time with this year.  And what a book it is.  Hazan’s precise recipes are a joy to read and a delight to recreate.  Since buying this in Portland last February, I don’t think more than a week or two has gone by without me trying a new recipe from it.  I am devoted to the soup chapter, in thrall to the pasta sauces, and had a revelation over brisket when I made the beef roast with braised onions.  It has quickly become my most cherished cookbook.

Top Ten - 14. A Desperate Fortune (2015) – Susanna Kearsley
A thrilling historical novel with two equally thoughtful, appealing heroines.

3. Anthony Trollope (1992) – Victoria Glendinning
Glendinning’s thorough, affectionate, and very readable biography of Trollope gave me a new appreciation for the books of his I’ve already read and more impetus to read the others.  I was especially fascinated by her interest in his relationships with the women in his lives and how they influenced his female characters.

2. The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) by Anthony Trollope
A funny, poignant, generous novel to end Trollope’s extraordinary Barsetshire series.

STW Letters1. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters (1982) edited by William Maxwell
An enchanting collection of letters spanning almost fifty years.  STW was a wonderful correspondent, filling her letters with richly-detailed annecdotes, self-deprecating humour, and the most delightful flights of whimsy.  I’ve yet to read a single one of her novels but, after reading this and the wonderful collection of her letters to William Maxwell (my favourite book of 2012), I can’t help but think of her as a close, dear friend.

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A-Desperate-Fortune-300x456It has been a slow and lacklustre reading year for me so far.  April held a few gems (Caroline Moorehead’s biography of Iris Origo and Elizabeth Bard’s Picnic in Provence stand out) and June has been respectable but otherwise the year has been bleak.  I’ve read much-praised new releases and, much to my frustration, been unmoved by them all: The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson…  I love all three authors and they all still write beautifully but these books just fell flat for me.

So what exactly have I been looking for?  A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley, as it turns out.

I first heard about Kearsley and her historical novels shortly after I started blogging but it wasn’t until 2012 that I first picked up her books for myself.  To be perfectly honest, there was still too much reliance on the supernatural (ghosts, inexplicable time travel, etc) for my rational self, but I loved Kearsley’s extraordinary attention to historical detail, her engaging writing style, her level-headed, competent heroines, her fascination with Jacobites…well, in the face of all that, a ghost or two was no great barrier.  I read The Firebird with great pleasure when it came out in 2013 (Jacobites!  In Russia!) and placed my library hold well ahead of A Desperate Fortune’s release this year, looking forward to learning about Jacobite supporters living in exile on the continent between the uprisings.  I expected to enjoy it but did not suspect it would immediately become my favourite of Kearsley’s books (supplanting The Shadowy Horses) and one of my favourite books of the year.

Like most of Kearsley’s books, the story alternates between a historical setting and a modern one.  But rather than being linked by the supernatural, the two eras are tied together here by a young woman’s diary.  Cue much rejoicing by this skeptical reader.  Our modern heroine, Sara Thomas, is an unemployed computer programmer with Asperger’s.  At the request of her cousin, she finds herself in France attempting to decode a young woman’s diary from the 18th Century for a social historian, who hopes the diary will contain details of everyday village life and help relaunch his career.  Instead, once Sara breaks the cipher, she discovers a breathless adventure featuring spies, assassins, pirates, royalty in exile, and, of course, romance.

While Sara is an admirable heroine (The Globe & Mail reviewer called her Kearsley’s “most endearing heroine to date”), I fell completely for Mary Dundas, the diarist.  Born to a French mother and a Jacobite father living in exile in France, Mary was raised by her aunt and uncle following her mother’s early death.  She has grown to adulthood with no contact at all from her father and elder brothers, developing into a smart, composed, loving, and very lonely woman.  When one of her brother appears and asks her to come live with him and his wife, it seems like the family she has yearned after for so many years has finally come back to claim her.  Instead, she soon finds herself living in Paris, helping to conceal a man wanted by the police.  When he is betrayed and they find their lives in danger, Mary flees to Rome with a motley crew: an accused thief, a monosyllabic Highlander, and a woman who knows more about Mary’s past than she does herself.

I loved this book so much.  The balance between the two eras is perfect and it says much about how appealing Sara is as a protagonist in her own right that I never felt frustrated when the narrative switched from Mary’s story to Sara’s.  Sara has her own journey to take, albeit a far less dangerous one, as she attempts to open herself up to new friends and the possibility of a relationship.  But it was Mary’s story that left me breathless at points – and not just from the thriller-like pace.  There is, let us be frank, a rather dishy love interest for Mary.  If you like your heroes protective, quiet, and kilted, have I found a book for you.

As soon as I finished reading, I wanted to start again.  And, really, I can’t think of any higher praise for a book.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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I long ago lost count of the number of bloggers who I’ve seen rave about the novels of Susanna Kearsley.  I know Eva, Marg, Teresa, Jane, Danielle, and Lyn have all enjoyed her works.  With such stellar recommendations from such trusted sources, I knew I had to try her for myself.  Luckily, because Kearsley is Canadian and if there is one thing Canadian libraries love it is stocking books by home-grown authors, I had no trouble tracking down her books and I am pleased to say that, having now read four of them, I can completely understand what all the fuss is about.  Kearsley writes beautifully and has that most coveted gift of being able to draw a reader in, quickly and completely.  I, who am usually am to put a book down in the middle of a sentence never mind a chapter, found myself whispering “just one more page” and “just one more chapter” to myself as I read late into the night.

Of course, not all books are created equal.  While I loved The Rose Garden, I only liked Mariana.  I enjoyed The Winter Sea but I adored The Shadowy Horses.  Still, each and every one had its good points (sometimes extremely good) and I enjoyed reading them all.

Counting them down in order of preference, here are my thoughts:

4. Mariana (1994)
Mariana was the first of Kearsley’s books that I read and I really do think it was a perfect introduction.  I didn’t adore it but it certainly eases the uninitiated reader into Kearsley’s realm, introducing you to her interest in the supernatural and captivating you with her skilful, easy writing style.

Shortly after Julia Beckett moves in Greywethers, a sixteenth century house she’s been drawn to since childhood, she begins having alarming hallucinations.  She suddenly finds herself slipping into the seventeenth century, where she is Mariana, a young woman caught up in a passionate affair with the local squire.  Of course, the logical deduction here is that Julia is actually Mariana reincarnated.  No big deal.  (This is the point where I warn all my fellow sceptics that suspension of disbelief is essential for the enjoyment Kearsley’s work.)  The memories come on unpredictably and hold Julia in a trance – in them, she is Mariana and remembers nothing of her 20th Century life.  But when she comes out of them, Julia remembers everything and can’t help but wonder if the attractive current squire, Geoff, is the reincarnation of Mariana’s lover, Richard.

To me, it seemed obvious from his first introduction who Julia’s romantic match was going to be (good rule of thumb: writer’s rarely waste that much time and detail on secondary characters who are going to languish in the background), which rather spoiled some of the suspense I think I was supposed to feel later on.  This book actually combined a number of things I loathe: fated lovers, reincarnation, and poorly-drawn, red-herring love interests, and yet, somehow, in Kearsley’s hands I enjoyed it.  I came away not particularly impressed by the plot or characters but very impressed by Kearsley’s skill as a storyteller and desperate to read more of her work.

3. The Winter Sea (2008)
Carrie McClelland is a best-selling historical novelist who has come to Scotland to research her new book.  Her intent is to focus on the attempted Jacobite uprising of 1708 and she chooses to centre her story around nearby Slains Castle, which belonged to Jacobite supporters.  When her editor encourages Carrie to add a female character, Carrie draws on her own family history for a name, inserting her ancestor Sophia into the tale.  But once Carrie begins writing about Sophia, the story takes on a life of its own.  Carrie starts having unusually vivid dreams about her characters, full of details and people who never appeared in her research.  Confused, she decides to fact check these imaginings, only to find that her ancestor Sophia had in fact lived in the castle before the uprising and that all the details that Carrie dreamt of or which came to her while she was writing are true too.  As Carrie delves into Sophia’s story, she is troubled by the question of how she can know so much about a distant ancestor of whom the family barely had any documentation.  And, as she discovers Sophia’s passion for the outlaw John Moray, she can’t help but wonder what happened to him, knowing that Sophia would go on to marry a man named McClelland…

Jacobites are always a romantic topic and I am always happy to read about them.  The story shifts back and forth between Carrie’s life and the passages from her novel detailing Sophia’s life at Slains, including her romance with John Moray.  At first, I was far more concerned with Carrie’s life and found the snippets from her novel intrusive but Sophia’s story soon takes possession of the reader’s attention and it is Carrie’s sections that end up feeling superfluous.

The story is intriguing but never quite as absorbing as it really should have been.  Kearsley clumsily tries to create parallels between Carrie and Sophia’s lives, a technique that completely backfires.  While it made sense for Sophia, given John Moray’s status as an outlaw, to keep her lover secret, it makes absolutely no sense for Carrie to do the same.  The unnecessary slyness exhibited by Carrie and her otherwise unobjectionable lover reflected poorly on them both and soured me against them.

But my main issue with this story has to be the obvious, the absurd reason why Carrie knows so many details about Sophia’s life: genetic memory.  That is, the idea that we inherit our ancestors’ memories along with their genetic traits: I get grandmama’s hands AND great-great-great-grandpapa’s memories.  With all of  Kearsley’s books, I kept having to remind myself to let go and just accept the story, however absurd I thought the paranormal element, but this was a step too far for me.

2. The Rose Garden (2011)
This was the book every single Kearsley fan told me I had to read.  I had been promised something impressive but, picking it up just after Mariana, I wasn’t quite sure.  Having read enough reviews by then to have a rough idea of the plot, I rather expected a workmanlike romance with perhaps a touch of heavy handed time travel.  Instead, I was presented with this enjoyable book.

When Eva’s beloved sister Katrina dies, she returns to the house in Cornwall where they spent their childhood summers to scatter her ashes.  Once there, she connects with her old friends and meets new but much older ones when she finds herself occasionally and uncontrollably slipping through time to the 18th Century.  As you do.  There, she meets Daniel Butler, who kindly and surprisingly calmly accepts her presence when she appears and with whom, unsurprisingly, Eva soon finds herself falling in love.

The difficulties of building and then maintaining a relationship across the centuries, particularly given the unpredictability of Eva’s movements and the danger posed by Daniel’s smuggling activities – and his Jacobite sympathies –, are intriguingly considered.  Eva has no control over when she moves between her time to Daniel’s, though she does come to realise that her movement is tied to the house when Daniel lived in the 18th Century and where her friends the Hallets live in the 21st: only when she is in or near it can she travel.   But as their relationship intensifies, Daniel’s situation becomes more and more dangerous in England.  Eva can only travel between the centuries when she is near the house – if Daniel has to leave, she will never see him again, and if Eva leaves with Daniel, she will never get back to her own time.

Kearsley misses nothing.  All of the details in her descriptions of people and places are absolutely and absorbingly perfect from the opening sentence.  No one, even the supporting characters, is poorly drawn.  They behave just as they ought, given what we know of them and of human nature, and Eva and Daniel, the time-crossed lovers, are wonderful.  The way they relate to one another, the way their acquaintance progresses, makes their growing attachment seem natural in the most unnatural circumstance imaginable, given that Eva is from the 21st Century while Daniel lives in the early 1700s.

The Cornish setting is wonderfully evoked and made me desperate to visit, though I did find Eva’s description of it as “wild” a bit amusing, especially since Eva is supposed to have grown up in British Columbia, where it is not unheard of for bears and cougars to find their way into the cities, never mind what you’ll find in the legitimately wild remainder of the province.  There is some wildness to any place by the sea, obviously, but I can’t help it: to me, Cornwall seems pretty tame.

1. The Shadowy Horses (1997)
As much as I enjoyed The Rose Garden, my fondness for it pales in comparison to my obsession with The Shadowy Horses.  I adored this book.  It had just the perfect level of the paranormal to make me completely comfortable, which, I have to admit, is the main place the other books fell down.  I find reincarnation ridiculous, genetic memory absurd and time travel intriguing but far-fetched.  A simple ghost and a boy with second sight, on the other hand, seemed humble and common enough to be believable.  It also helped that the ghost was particularly unthreatening, being very fond and protective of our heroine and on friendly terms with a local dog.

When Verity Grey receives the call to come to the Rosehill estate in Eyemouth, Scotland for work on a mysterious archaeological dig, she can’t resist.  But this dig is not like any she has ever worked on before.  The aged and eccentric Peter Quinnell is determined to find evidence that the Ninth Legion of Rome was there, his only evidence coming not from scientific or historical sources but from a small boy with second sight who claims to communicate with the ghost of a Roman legionnaire who guards his comrades’ final resting place.  As the dig begins yielding finds, the archaeologists, particularly Verity and historian David Fortune, begin piecing together what they’ve found – but what does it all mean?

First of all, let us get one thing perfectly clear: David Fortune is perfect.  He is, without a doubt, the most appealing romantic lead I have come across in ages.  If Kearsley had consulted my personal list of traits that a romantic hero should possess, she would have found David Fortune reflected there.  He is tall with black, curly hair; he has blue eyes; he is Scottish; he is kind and polite; he lectures at the University of Edinburgh…he is, in short, perfect in every way.  The plot does not revolve around his and Verity’s romance, which is perhaps the most brilliant choice in this book, and it plays out with a minimum of fuss.  He and Verity both have fascinating work to do and it is delightful when they are together but not of major note when they are not.  Unlike so many female characters, Verity does not spend all her time moping about when her love interest leaves the room: she has exciting work to do, not to mention ghosts to cross-examine, and it absorbs her attention.  David and Verity treat each other well, with both respect and affection, and sadly that is remarkable – far too few books from any genre show healthy relationships like this.

Unlike Kearsley’s other books, where the heroine is the one experiencing paranormal phenomena first had, Verity is only a witness, which I think is a very clever choice.  Verity sees extraordinary things but, unlike young Robbie, cannot see the ghost or hear him.  Like the reader, she has to trust what she is told and suspend her disbelief, making her instantly more relatable than any of the other characters in the books reviewed above.

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Kearsley’s books are fun.  Whatever quibbles I might have had with some of them, that never prevented me from enjoying the reading experience and that, after all, is the most important thing.  And I will certainly be rereading The Shadowy Horses – I cannot wait to get my hands on my own copy.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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