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Susanna Kearsley – The Shadowy Horses

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Even when not in Rome, if the Romans are there, do as they do.

Publisher: Allison & Busby
Pages: 397
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-749-00703-4
First Published: January 1997
Date Reviewed: 16th August 2017
Rating: 4/5

When Verity is offered an archaeological job in Scotland, the decision to go for the interview is easy, but saying yes to the job – digging where only one person thinks there’s something to be found – is harder. But she takes it, and together with her equally sceptical colleagues, starts to see the paranormal aspects that are making her employer believe there’s a Roman fort underfoot. And by the time she’s been there a few days, the presence of David means she won’t be leaving quickly.

The Shadowy Horses is a paranormal historical with a bit of romance, looking further back in time than Kearsley tends to.

The use of location here is very good. Kearsley has steeped the story in the Scottish setting, the specific place. (There’s very much the feeling that if anything has been changed it was in error.) There’s some sunshine but a lot of wind and rain, and the descriptions are excellent. It’s easy to get a feel for the place and world-building is well-balanced between town, weather, and the subjects at hand. Kearsley mixes the present-day and true history with the paranormal very well, letting the ghostly elements and slight magical realism blend in neatly; it does become more fantastical at a certain point, with everyone believing, but this suits the temperament of the leader of the archaeological group; suffice to say you don’t have to believe it possible for it to work as part of the story, you just have to believe the characters believe it.

In this Kearlsey has been prudent. Her version of a sixth sense aligns with the more realistic ideas about and there’s an even split between others who believe, are not sure, and completely disregard the notion. The author taps into the idea of ‘feelings’, sensing consciousness.

Due to drawbacks covered below, Verity is not a particularly strong character owing to author intervention, but the others are written well enough. There’s some sudden changes – mostly in Verity, and different to the author intervention – that are there presumably to aid the slow transition of the book from paranormal historical to paranormal historical with romance, but it’s enough to make you want to keep reading through the problematic sections. Quinnell, director of the dig and the person who believes in it all despite a complete lack of evidence, is winsome. (Kearsley uses this idea a lot, to good effect – the utter belief in something by one balanced out by others who require evidence.) The romance itself is strictly okay, its average nature in part owing to the fact that you’ll find yourself wanting to return to the archaeology, and there’s obviously more development of other aspects of the book than couples’ chemistry.

There is a lot of research behind it all, both in terms of present-day Scotland and the Roman legion, and in the notes Kearsley has thanked many local residents for their help. But whilst there’s a lot of information that is great, particularly about the Romans and, of course, archaeology (though the author does info-dump a bit when it comes to methodology), the show of how much Scots Kearsley has learned is continuously referenced. Verity is always pulling out her Scots dictionary to look up a word that’s just been used by someone else. It detracts from the character, making her a mouthpiece for language lessons. The specific detailing in the book, away from world-building and characterisation, is a little too much, with information about what the cats are doing and which cat is doing any one thing (when names are not needed because you’ve been informed as to their markings) a mainstay of the book.

The dialogue and narrative is mainly good but the Canadian phrasing and words of the author have sometimes slipped through – an understandable factor that will affect some readers (British English speakers and others familiar with it may find it jolts them from the text).

The Shadowy Horses isn’t Kearsley’s best but is still worth reading. It’s her only ancient history-based book, so it’s something very different in terms of her work, and not as refined as others, but there is still a lot of fun to be had.

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Tove Jansson – Letters From Klara

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To quote Moominland Midwinter: ‘One has to discover everything for oneself. And get over it all alone.’

Publisher: Sort Of Books
Pages: 129
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-74561-3
First Published: 1991; 1st June 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 19th July 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Swedish
Original title: Brev Från Klara Och Andra Berättelser (Letters From Klara And Other Stories)
Translated by: Thomas Teal

Letters From Klara is a collection of short stories that are very subtle in their points. The creator of Moomins, Jansson is quoted as saying, “I love the short story concentrated and united around a single idea. There must be nothing unnecessary in it. One must be able to hold the tale enclosed in one’s hand”, and she stays true to form in this collection. What this means is that some of the stories may strike the reader as missing something – Jansson holding on so much to minimalism that it can be difficult to see exactly what she wants to say, but there are others that are profound. Those more average in their storytelling still make for a good read.

There are thirteen stories here and most are confined to a handful of pages. Standouts include the title story, entirely epistolary, in which a person’s first letter (so far as the story is concerned) sets out how someone else should become less critical and then goes on to show that perhaps it’s the letter writer’s own traits, projected; another is The Train Trip, wherein a man who very much admired an old classmate meets him and discovers his admiration pails in comparison; and Party Games in which a group of what we might now call ‘frenemies’ in school meet up again as adults, having changed little. A variety of themes, as subtle, often, as the overall reasons for the stories, rounds it off well – who one is, one’s place in the family (often too burdensome!) and other groups and communities, how one relates to others.

Something not covered in the stories listed above is the oft-used theme of art. An artist herself – in fact Jansson saw the art as more important – a few of the stories look at different types of artist, and the different reasons, ways, and places for drawing and painting. An isolated, prison-like place where a young adult nevertheless cannot escape the idea of home; a classroom of budding artists where one person stands out for seeming to misunderstand the concept of friendship and closeness, later revealed to be part of something else about him.

As a translation the book reads well, in fact it’s difficult to note anything particular about it simply because Teal has done such a good job. He’s kept it steeped in time and place and the tone and word choices, feels very right, an echo of many English-language counterparts, if you will, dialect from a few decades ago and matching the phrasing of an older generation.

This is a book to read at a pace that feels comfortable to you – there’s the feeling that Jansson, whilst of course having a reason to write and a desire for you to know certain things, has left the reading experience itself open to choice.

Letters From Klara shows off Jansson’s ability beyond children’s literature, just as deserving of accolades.

I received this book for review.

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Susanna Kearsley – Mariana

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Making amends for the past.

Publisher: Allison & Busby
Pages: 387
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-749-00706-5
First Published: 1994
Date Reviewed: 17th April 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

Julia moves into a little house in a lovely village that she had always admired. Very soon she’s experiencing very realistic daydreams wherein she’s herself but not quite, a historical person rather like her. It happens everywhere – the big old house, her own house, and outside. It’s worrying – one day she’s spotted pottering around oblivious to the road traffic – but also too mysterious not to follow. Someone many many years in the past experienced much sadness and Julia feels the need to work it out. And whilst her brother may have his reservations – her safety is at stake, after all – it seems others in the village might have played a role back then, too, including the rather handsome lord of the manor.

Mariana adheres to that particularly special set of mixed genres so many love: it’s a historical time-slip romance. And it’s an excellent one.

The story goes a bit further than your usual haunting or time-slip shadows idea, presenting you with a character who is both the modern day time ‘slipee’ and the ghost; Julia is ‘Julia’ during her waking and non-daydream hours and ‘Mariana’ in the opposite. It’s an excellent concept that plays right into the idea of reincarnation, karma, and unfinished business, and it’s not just Julia in the mix – there’s a suitor or two and a friend or three there, as well.

It really is very special and as it was written in the 90s there are no phones or computers to divert attention. It harkens back to days of yore when people spent more time outside – for many readers it’ll be as much a nostalgic trip as a historical time-slip, and it’s topped off by Julia’s career as a book illustrator; she’s all about drawing.

If you like nature and villages, this one’s for you. Rather than the totally stereotypical accent-full northern Cotswold village, or the Cornish seaside, Kearsley opts for Exbury in Wiltshire which is less romantic than some but makes sure you don’t get too carried away with the present. With this book you want to stay in the past until Aunt Freda says it’s time to move on.

The writing is fair. There are a few errors, understandable considering the author’s nationality, but nothing to stop you reading. Indeed it may surprise you that it’s Kearsley’s first book – there are niggles and perhaps hints that she’s following a well trodden path but it’s a very competent piece of work. It’s hard to put down even when you know where it’s headed. The ending may leave the question of ‘what about so and so…?’ unanswered but it’s not frustrating or ambiguous.

And when it’s predictable? It doesn’t matter – this book is all about the journey, the ride. As one of the characters says, Julia is on a journey and it will come to an end – we begin at the start and finish where she leaves off. There’s no superfluity here and only minimal, planned, convenience.

Mariana is a historical dream, a romantic’s wish, a reader’s demands satisfied. It is quite something.

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Mavis Cheek – Dog Days

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Separating for the kid.

Publisher: Ipso Books
Pages: 193
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1990
Date Reviewed: 4th May 2016
Rating: 4/5

Pat is leaving Gordon, buying a new home, getting a dog for her daughter who has said if they must lose Daddy she wants a dog, and starting life afresh. She should have done it years ago – she should have never married him. Love isn’t on the cards; Pat has no intentions of another relationship, she’s just looking forward to being herself again.

Dog Days is at once a light and easy-going story, and an honest look at the breakdown of a marriage, a person’s resurfacing after divorce into the person they used to be. At times very blunt, Cheek’s book is one that delves into things that are difficult to talk about whilst nevertheless remaining breezy. The Times has said ‘Mavis Cheek seems to have cracked the conundrum of how to write decent novels with popular appeal’, and that’s a good way to sum it up.

Rachel gave me my pass through life. She was, anyway, the only reason I was in this situation.

Cheek is open about the problems that can come with having children – whilst it’s obvious to the reader and to Pat herself that Rachel’s birth did not exactly change Gordon (more that it allowed her to see who he was), it was in having Rachel that Pat felt bound to her then boyfriend and so an accidental pregnancy led to her life going quite a different way than planned. Gordon was not the one for Pat – he’s stingy, having plenty of money but never treating his wife nor his daughter, and only cares about himself. He turns on the charm when he wants to manipulate his daughter to get what he wants.

But equally, as much as Cheek is honest about the affect of children and the way a person should think beforehand as to whether they truly do want to be a parent, she is open about how much happiness they can bring. Rachel doesn’t cause Pat to be exuberant, it’s more a case that Rachel’s intelligence continues to baffle her mother, in a good way, and the girl, older than her years it seems to her mother, is a good companion. Whilst Pat would not have stayed with Gordon if it weren’t for Rachel, nevertheless Rachel is obviously a good factor in Pat’s life.

More than children, Cheek just speaks of relationships. When asked by her solicitor, Pat struggles to find a tidy reason for getting a divorce; this is where Cheek’s exploration of resentment and sadness comes in. Pat can’t sum up her reason in a sentence. She can’t say she was abused, or that Gordon cheated, and so begins a long, excellent, section wherein she narrates various episodes in her life that show why she wants to leave her husband. Cheek shows how it isn’t always cut and dried, and that listing reasons doesn’t always work.

Amongst this exploration is some humour. It’s the sort of easy joviality that keeps the pace steady and the pages turning on the occasions when what you’re reading about is quite bleak. A lot of it revolves around Pat’s distaste for dogs and her slow journey towards becoming a dog person:

Eventually, with considerable effort on my part, we selected the weakest and wettest of mongrels in the pound. Rachel wanted the racy little cross between a Jack Russell and a something (a very something), but it had far too many of Gordon’s traits for my liking. Small and wiry with bright snapping eyes; a prominent, urgent profile and – I could sense – totally selfish motives behind its cocky, winning ways. I had lived with one like that for too long in its human form to burden myself with another, albeit four-legged and linked to me in animal slavery. Whereas the wet-looking mongrel had not an ounce of spunk left in it.

Brian, the dog of the title, doesn’t really do much, he’s no Scooby Do or Lassie – the title is more about the time itself, those days. Brian’s the subtle presence, there for Rachel, there for Pat once she thaws a bit towards him, and a menace once or twice when Pat’s too sure he’s the right dull dog for her.

The main thing to bare in mind is Pat’s illogical misunderstanding which spans a good few chapters. There comes a point when Pat mistakes someone for being in a relationship and it gets a bit grating because it’s blatantly obvious that they aren’t and therefore comes across as a lengthening device. Once cleared up, Pat notes it should have occurred to her, but that doesn’t atone for the frustration.

This aside, Dog Days is a funny, half-escapist, half-brutal-with-good-reason read. It’s honest, it’s realistic, and yet its status as an easy page-turning book never wavers.

I received this book for review on behalf of the publisher.

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Elizabeth Chadwick – Shields Of Pride

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And prejudice.

Publisher: Sphere (Little, Brown)
Pages: 361
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-751-54027-7
First Published: 1994; re-printed and edited 2007
Date Reviewed: 7th March 2016
Rating: 3/5

Joscelin’s been a mercenary for years but when he gets in a fight with a man who accuses him of trying to carry off his wife, things start to change. The man, now dead, leaves a widow and child and they will need taking care of. And in the background is the conflict between Joscelin and his half-brothers – Joscelin is the child of his father’s other woman – and the fight between the king and his son.

Shields Of Pride is one of Chadwick’s earlier novels, recently reprinted, that deals with completely fictional characters. It’s a fair book but far outmatched by some of her others.

The history is as strong as always; Chadwick’s knack for throwing the reader back in time is just as good here as elsewhere. The details ensure an almost film-like, immersed quality, and the two main characters are stunning. Particularly Joscelin. Chadwick’s hero is fully medieval. Unlike some of her books wherein the hero is a historical dream, inevitably very similar to her other historical dream heroes, and sometimes a little too modern in sensibility, Joscelin is simply a medieval man. He’ll fight to the death, no holds barred and in anger, then kiss his wife who, similarly unaffected by any misplaced modernity, doesn’t comment on the fight and happily follows him to bed. If it feels like the book lacks any nicety, it’s for good reason.

Not so good is the plot. One could say there isn’t a plot, just a scene, a man who takes to wife the woman whose husband he killed, and their resulting average life together; indeed if that were it it would be fine – and it is for a good chunk of pages. What happens, then, is that the story begins to drag and continues to drag until the end. Unnecessary minor conflicts are conveniently added to, it can only be assumed, lengthen it. (The book would have made a lovely novella.) Fights happen then life happens then fight happens and rinse, repeat; you can see the conflicts coming a mile off. Each battle is meticulously detailed but as you know who is going to win you could skip them if you wanted to. It’s hard to say there’s a climax because the end of the book is a lot weaker than the middle.

Amongst this is the family set-up: Joscelin is the lauded, loved, out-of-wedlock oldest son whose father treats his wife and younger sons badly. The initial introduction works – you’re introduced to the hurt wife who had to live in the footsteps of the other woman (who lived with them) and the official heirs who are constantly criticised because their mother was married out of duty and isn’t loved. The thing here is that these people are rightly angry and it’s well established that they have reason, but as the book carries on they are written more and more as crazy bad guys who are too hateful and as much as one might agree that they shouldn’t blame the messenger for the faults of the sender it all becomes a bit too hubble bubble toil and trouble, and a bit too good versus evil. Add to this the young-skinny-woman and older-large-woman divide and the release date shows.

Where Shields Of Pride works, then, is in the afore-mentioned factual hero and the history. It works as a generally upbeat, escapist read, that doesn’t demand anything of you, but shouldn’t be picked instead of others.

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