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Barbara Erskine – Sleeper’s Castle

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Now I lay me down to sleep…

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 530
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-007-51319-2
First Published: 30th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 28th August 2017
Rating: 3/5

When Andi’s partner dies, she’s forced out of his London home by his ex-wife; Andi moves to Hay-On-Wye to house and cat sit for a friend. Sleeper’s castle, as the house is known, poses a bit of a paranormal conundrum – those who remain there are visited by history, dreaming of the lives of the medieval residents of the house. Andi must balance this mental take over with the looming presence of her partner’s wife, whose home Andi starts to visit in her dreams. The woman seems to have a penchant for violence.

Sleeper’s Castle is an epic novel of history, and a psychological thriller. It requires a lot of time that may be seen as a reward by some but not worth it to others.

The book is effectively two stories melded into one package and it can be a bit jarring when the narrative moves from one to the other; especially where it concerns the time-slipping, the reversion back to thriller can seem an after thought. And as the novel continues, it does drag on, not knowing when to call it a day.

What’s interesting though, is that the historical content isn’t particularly compelling in itself; aside from the bit on Owain Glyndŵr it’s largely an ordinary tale; but the time-slipping itself is a lot of fun to read. The process of it. The theories. The way the cat is a fully developed character, an aspect that has been done with aplomb.

The thriller starts off well enough, with the long-gone wife returning to lord it over the long-standing loyal partner, and the ensuing conversations between the characters affected by the woman, about emotional instability, make for a solid foundation, but it starts to get unrealistic with people leaving things to fate instead of acting on the threat. The ending of the thread is very unsatisfying.

The writing is so so. There appears to have been a very heavy hand in the editing process, a distinct lack of commas and odd grammar choices which are at odds with the author’s longevity and affect the dialogue badly.

So it’s fun sometimes but for the length of it and everything that detracts from the fun, you might be better off reading (or re-reading) Erskine’s previous novel about the town of books.

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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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Samanta Schweblin – Fever Dream

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Be prepared to never be prepared.

Publisher: Oneworld
Pages: 151
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-786-07090-6
First Published: 2014; 10th January 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 21st March 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Spanish
Original title: Distancia de Rescate (Rescue Distance)
Translated by: Megan McDowell

Amanda’s in hospital. David, the peculiar child of someone she knows, seated somewhere near her, is telling her she’s close to death; she has to keep talking, work out what has happened, why she’s there. It’s difficult; it’s hard to think, she can’t see very well, and David keeps telling her to move on to other things that are more important. She won’t.

Fever Dream is a novella full of circular thinking, warped perceptions, and few concrete answers – they are sometimes there but Schweblin defiantly remains vague. It’s an easy read, a small book without chapters, that asks a lot of your attention but for that it rewards you with the reality of unreality and a fair amount to think about.

The original title is probably a good place to start – a lot of the narrative revolves around Amanda’s concept of ‘rescue distance’, the maximum physical distance between herself and her small daughter at any one time that will result in immediate result in case of accident. Amanda’s ill health makes her even more paranoid and obsessive so that the distance lengths and shortens – most often the latter – over the course of the book. Her time with her daughter is detailed solely as a flashback, the report she gives David as she lays ill in bed, but gets discussed by them in the present every so often. Alongside this constant consideration are other repetitions – Carla’s gold bikini, for example – that further illustrate what Amanda, perhaps erroneously, is focusing on.

Flashbacks. Are they? Aren’t they? Schweblin never tells you the exact times when Amanda is thinking of the past and talking directly to David – it’s generally obvious but not always. This adds to the feeling of confusion for the reader, very much intended, and gives you more of an idea of the situation at hand. It is also difficult to work out the time line of what has happened in Amanda’s story but in this Scheweblin does provide an idea of what you’re meant to be thinking, as a reader, when she presents a definite dream sequence. This dream shows the topsy-turvy construction of our real life dreams, whether feverish or in good health, that confirms for you the feeling that you’re not necessarily meant to be working everything out.

David’s almost changling status is eerie. Supposedly, this child of Amanda’s friend – this child/now adult (who knows?) who is in Amanda’s room – is not the same as he was before. (In years gone by a woman said that in order to save a feverish David’s life, a switch of bodies would have to take place, David’s spirit moving on to another body and David’s body becoming inhabited by a different soul. It’s the different soul/same body that Amanda is supposedly talking to.) David’s actions are seen as strange, haunted, and whereas we can assume that some actions might have been normal in reality, some clearly aren’t. The character of David is very much up to you, the reader, to figure out.

Fever Dream is a short book; you wouldn’t want it to be longer due to the confusion and the relentless and repetitive nature of David’s questions. It’s a book you can enjoy even if you can’t quite explain it, and at times it’s the very idea of not having to understand it that allows you to enjoy it more. And with its relatively small number of pages and a narrative that doesn’t deviate, with its lack of chapters and easy language, it’s the perfect choice if you want to pick up something challenging but very accessible.

I received this book for review.

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Nicola Cornick – The Phantom Tree

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Those of both history and the present.

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 420
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45504-7
First Published: 29th December 2016
Date Reviewed: 22nd January 2017
Rating: 4/5

When Alison ran away from her abusive cousin she had no idea that opening the inn door would whisk her away from the 1500s and straight onto a 21st century street. But that it did; when her cousin, now father of her child, sends her away, she returns to the present but though she adapts well to modern life she yearns to return to her son. Meanwhile, Mary Seymour deals with continuous accusations of witchcraft and a house that doesn’t want her. And forefront in her mind is the promise she made to Alison to somehow leave word of baby Arthur.

The Phantom Tree is a time travel book in a similar vein but different voice to Cornick’s previous novel, House Of Shadows. This different voice is one of the stand-out elements – Mary Seymour’s narrative, in particular, is very different from Cornick’s previous narrator, yet the author keeps her writing itself the same. It’s an interesting element that speaks highly of Cornick’s ability to develop characters whilst not changing her style too much.

Interesting, too, is the basic plot and the way the time travel has been included. There is one particular plot point that’s very predictable – the character really should have put two and two together earlier – but other than that it’s well done. Cornick hasn’t created anything new in the way that the time travelling happens but it’s the detail that’s good, the way she’s used a well-used device and just got on with the story – with time travel used so much, there’s little need for basics.

The characters are well drawn. We aren’t given much of Alison’s first days in the present, more of a quick nod, as the focus is on her search to get back. It is easy to wonder every now and then how she could have learned so much in a fairly short time but not unbelievable considering her personality. Throughout Alison is the stronger of the two heroines, and although it is true she’s mostly a modern-day character anyway, reading about her in the past shows a person who could fit in anywhere.

In Mary Seymour’s case it’s very intriguing; Cornick has exploited the lack of knowledge we have about Mary, Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour’s daughter, and really gone to town with it, making Mary not just accused of witchcraft but actually able to see the future. Mary’s magic does contribute to an ending that some may find a bit far-fetched given our collective lack of knowledge (not far-fetched in the concept of fantasy!) and there’s something she shares with another that’s very fantastical. Thus this book goes beyond the sub-genre of time travel – it’s a full on historical fantasy with some hearty romance included.

Speaking of far-fetched, the clues left for Alison by Mary are very vague to the point that unless you trust in their relationship, and the continued significance of it despite the years apart, you may find it hard to believe. This element does stretch the imagination somewhat, though it’s more due to the way less time is spent on the sleuthing and because of the requirement for word and symbol association.

The two heroines are obviously distanced so there’s not as much room for development there as you might have hoped – this is a dual narrative that may never cross paths – but the other relationships in the book are very good. Adam, Alison’s ex-boyfriend of the modern day, is a TV historian, a role which turns out to be as excellent as you would hope in the context, and Mary gets a romance too. Cornick spends time on Alison’s search for Arthur and this thread has a very poignant ending.

There is one issue with this book as a product that unfortunately affects the reading – somewhere towards the middle the proofreading disappears. Cornick’s good writing remains throughout but the editing errors are numerous.

The Phantom Tree has a fair story, strong characterisation and great writing, and a fast pace and attention keeper even during the too-fantastical parts, but more time needed to be spent checking it over before printing.

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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