The Ghost Tree by Barbara Erskine

I’m finding that I usually like the sound of Barbara Erskine’s books much more than I like the books themselves! I thought Sleeper’s Castle was an enjoyable read, but I’ve had very mixed feelings about the others that I’ve tried, even Lady of Hay, which I’d heard so much about. Still, when I saw her latest novel, The Ghost Tree, in the library, I couldn’t resist picking it up.

Like most of Erskine’s other books, this one is set in two time periods and includes elements of the supernatural which link them together. In the present day we meet Ruth Dunbar whose father has just died, leaving her his house in Edinburgh. On arriving at the house, she is surprised to find that it is already occupied by a stranger who tells her his name is Timothy and that he has been caring for her father during his final months. According to Timothy, it is actually he and not Ruth who will inherit the house – and although Ruth’s lawyer assures her this is not the case, it seems that Timothy is not prepared to give up his claim.

As she begins to sort through her parents’ possessions, Ruth finds a collection of old diaries and letters written in the 18th century by Thomas Erskine, an illustrious ancestor of her mother’s. Thomas led an eventful, dramatic life and Ruth quickly becomes captivated by his story, but when she starts to think she can see Thomas standing beside her as she reads, the boundary between past and present seems to have been broken.

The Ghost Tree, as the title would suggest and as I have hinted above, is a ghost story, so I am counting it towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge. Thomas himself, as Ruth’s many times-great-grandfather, is no threat to Ruth, but he is not the only ghost who finds his way into the 21st century – there is another, who is a much more menacing and evil presence. Ruth (as seems to be a standard requirement of a Barbara Erskine heroine) just happens to have several friends and acquaintances who are experts in the paranormal and she enlists their help in dealing with her ghostly visitors. As far as ghost stories go, I didn’t find it either particularly scary or very atmospheric, but if you enjoy reading about séances, exorcisms and other aspects of the supernatural, you will probably find a lot to interest you here.

The narrative switches between past and present throughout the novel and as usual it was the historical one that I found most compelling. Thomas Erskine is a real life ancestor of Barbara Erskine’s and she has based his story on what we already know about him and on her own research into his life. Born in Edinburgh in 1750, he served in the Navy in the Caribbean and later joined the army, before returning to Britain to concentrate on a career in politics and the law. You can easily find a wealth of information about him online if you’re interested in knowing more, but if you’re thinking about reading The Ghost Tree you might prefer to read the novel first before looking up all the facts. Personally, I think there would have been enough material for a whole book just about Thomas and his adventures, without needing to involve ghosts or anything else!

I had other problems with the modern day sections of the book. For a start, the villains (one of whom is Timothy, the man contesting Ruth’s inheritance) are stereotypical and lack the sort of nuance and depth I prefer – and I quickly lost patience with the way Ruth and her friends repeatedly put themselves at risk, despite knowing how dangerous the villains were. There’s also an unpleasant storyline involving some cases of ghostly rape, which added very little apart from shock value.

This book was a bit of a disappointment, especially after enjoying Sleeper’s Castle so much, but at least I found Thomas Erskine’s story interesting, so I didn’t feel that it had been a waste of time. I just wish we could have spent more time with Thomas and less with Ruth and the ghost hunters! Can any Barbara Erskine fans tell me whether there are any of her earlier books that I might enjoy more, particularly any that spend a more substantial amount of time in the past or that use the supernatural elements more convincingly?

This is my fourth book read for the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: supernatural).

My Commonplace Book: June 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary



“Do you know what, that does interest me. Not the fact that he was popular before he was arrested. He’s a good-looking man, there’s nothing remarkable in that. What fascinates me is the number of women who, by all accounts, write to him in prison. Why would they do that, do you think?”

“All notorious killers have a fan club,” he says.

Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton (2016)


Oh, there was pomp and pageantry and all the splendour of trumpets and gold brocade and wine flowing from the conduits, but there was something more that I can only think of as passion – the passion of a queen for her people and of the people for their queen. Already Elizabeth had the gift of investing the most ordinary action with an almost symbolic nobility, and, conversely, the ability to draw a touch of humanity from the most solemn ceremony.

The Virgin Queen by Maureen Peters (1972)


At heart he could not abide sense in women. He liked to see them as silly, as light-headed, as vain, as open to ridicule as possible, because they were then in reality what he held them to be, and wished them to be — inferior, toys to play with, to amuse a vacant hour, and to be thrown away.

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë (1849)


Katherine of Aragon

Katherine thanked him, drew the curtains and huddled back into her furs. She had found Prince Henry a little disturbing. He was a handsome boy, with undeniable charm, and even in those brief moments he had dominated the courtesies. Arthur had been reserved and diffident, and she could not stop herself from wondering how different things would have been had she been betrothed to his brother. Would she have felt more excited? More in awe? She felt disloyal even thinking about it. How could she be entertaining such thoughts of a child of ten? Yet it was so easy to see the future man in the boy. And it was worrying to realise how effortlessly Arthur could be overshadowed by his younger brother. Pray God Prince Henry was not overambitious!

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen by Alison Weir (2016)


He claims to be himself the author of the nickname. Signor Pronto, he says, was a character in a popular farce, — a most obliging person who always turned up in the nick of time to arrange matters for everybody. The catch word of the farce was: Pronto will manage it! Some great lady was lamenting the difficulties of arranging charades at her country house party; ‘But,’ she cried, ‘I expect Mr. Lufton tomorrow and he will manage it for me.’ At which Crockett, who was present, said: ‘Oh ay! Pronto will manage it.’ After that they all called Lufton Pronto behind his back.

Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy (1953)



Catrin woke and stared round in the dim light of a flickering fire. Her heart was pounding from the horror of the dream. The dream she had shared, did she but know it, with another woman; a dream she had dreamt recently, at home in Sleeper’s Castle. But she wasn’t at home. She pulled her cloak around her, shivering, confused as to where she was. Then she remembered.

Sleeper’s Castle by Barbara Erskine (2016)


She had not come to God with her wreath or with her sins and sorrows, not as long as the world still possessed a drop of sweetness to add to her goblet. But now she had come, after she had learned that the world is like an alehouse: The person who has no more to spend is thrown outside the door.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (1920)


Favourite books this month: Kristin Lavransdatter, Daisy in Chains and Troy Chimneys

Sleeper’s Castle by Barbara Erskine

Sleeper's Castle After reading Lady of Hay I said I wouldn’t be looking for any more of Barbara Erskine’s novels, but I couldn’t resist this latest one with its unusual title, pretty cover and intriguing synopsis! And actually, Sleeper’s Castle was a pleasant surprise; I enjoyed it much more than any of the other books I’ve read by Erskine.

Despite its name, Sleeper’s Castle is not really a castle; it’s a house near Hay-on-Wye, close to the border between England and Wales. For several years it has been home to Sue and her cat, Pepper, but when Sue decides to go back to Australia she offers her friend, Miranda, the chance to live in Sleeper’s Castle rent-free for a year in return for looking after the house and the cat. Miranda – who prefers to be known as Andy – has been going through a difficult time following the death of her partner, Graham, and is delighted to have the opportunity to get away from London for a while. She looks forward to resuming her career as an illustrator in the peace of the Welsh countryside, safe in the knowledge that Rhona – the jealous, vicious wife Graham never divorced – will never be able to find her now.

As soon as she moves into Sleeper’s Castle, Andy knows she is going to love her new home. It’s an old house, with a history dating back hundreds of years, so at first Andy is not surprised when she begins to have vivid dreams involving a young woman called Catrin who lived at Sleeper’s Castle around the year 1400. Catrin is the daughter of another dreamer – Dafydd, a bard and seer – and as she travels around Wales with her father, entertaining at the castles of his patrons, she finds herself caught up in Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion against the English.

Most of Barbara Erskine’s books are described as time slip novels and this one really lives up to that description, with the narrative slipping seamlessly from one time period to another so that the boundaries between past and present gradually start to blur. It’s not only Andy who is aware that something unusual is occurring; while she can see into the past, Catrin can also glimpse the future. Less convincingly, there’s also a sort of psychic connection between Andy and Rhona which draws the two women together against their will.

Catrin’s story is fascinating and I could understand why Andy was captivated by it. I have to admit, I know almost nothing about Owain Glyndŵr other than that he is considered a Welsh hero for his attempt to free Wales from the rule of Henry IV, so it was good to have the opportunity to add to my knowledge. As most of the characters in the historical sections of the novel are fictional, however, and Glyndŵr himself appears only occasionally, this book serves as a starting point to finding out more rather than exploring the period in any real depth.

The present day storyline was entertaining too – I loved Bryn the gardener, Meryn the healer and Pepper the cat – but it was spoiled slightly by the Rhona subplot. Rhona’s behaviour becomes so malicious and threatening that I really couldn’t believe Andy didn’t call the police and I couldn’t accept her reasons for not doing so. Very frustrating!

Much has been made of the fact that this book is being published to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Barbara Erskine’s first novel, Lady of Hay, and is set in the same part of the world. Sleeper’s Castle is not a sequel and it’s not necessary to have read Lady of Hay first; this is an enjoyable book in its own right and I’m glad I decided to give Barbara Erskine another chance to impress me.

Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine

Lady of Hay As a university student in Edinburgh in the 1970s Jo Clifford agrees to take part in a study into regression and past lives. She allows herself to be hypnotised, not really expecting anything to happen, but she proves to be such a good subject that both the Professor and his assistant, Sam Franklyn, are alarmed. They lie to her, telling her that they’d failed to hypnotise her, and then send her home.

Fifteen years later, now a journalist living in London, Jo is working on a series of magazine articles, one of which will be about hypnotism. As part of her research she agrees to undergo hypnosis again herself to prove that it doesn’t work. Jo has just split up with her boyfriend – Sam’s brother, Nick Franklyn – so when he and Sam try to warn her of the dangers, she doesn’t want to listen. Going ahead with the regression, she makes a shocking discovery: hypnotism does work and it seems that in a previous life she was Matilda de Braose, a 12th century noblewoman.

Intrigued by Matilda’s story, Jo spends more and more time in the past, reliving the events of Matilda’s marriage to the powerful baron William de Braose, her affair with the handsome Richard de Clare and her turbulent relationship with King John. As she learns more about Matilda, it becomes clear to Jo that there are some frightening similarities between her previous life and her current one – and that events from the past could be about to be replayed again in the present.

Barbara Erskine’s books always sound very intriguing to me, yet I’ve now tried three of them and have had mixed feelings about all three. There were some things I liked about Lady of Hay but other things that I really disliked, and overall I wish I hadn’t bothered with this one.

Let’s get the negative points out of the way first. My biggest problem with this book was the modern day storyline…the characters were so difficult to like! It seemed that they were all either cheating on their partners, betraying their friends or plotting and scheming against family members. There was also a lot of domestic violence and abuse which the women just seemed to accept and view as normal. I’m aware that this book was published in 1986 but I don’t think things have changed all that much since then and I wanted to see Jo stand up for herself and let the men in her life know that the way they were behaving was wrong. In some cases I couldn’t understand why the police weren’t called.

I did find it interesting to read about the theories behind reincarnation and the various methods of hypnotism and regression but it was difficult to believe that so many people in the novel were experts on the subject. Jo was constantly meeting people at random who just happened to be trained hypnotists! There was also a suggestion that other people in Jo’s present had also lived in the 12th century, but I felt that this was never fully resolved. In particular, I struggled to understand what was going on with Sam Franklyn, whose personality seemed to change entirely within the space of a few chapters; it wasn’t clear whether this was supposed to be the result of a past life, a mental illness or something else.

I really enjoyed the historical sections of the book, which didn’t surprise me as I almost always do prefer the historical parts of a multiple time period novel. I have heard of Matilda de Braose before (mainly in Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons – although she was known as Maud, a variation of Matilda, in that book) but I have never read about her story in any detail. It was fascinating…so much more interesting than the modern day storyline; I was always disappointed when we had to leave medieval Wales and return to 20th century England.

I did feel a bit cheated when I turned to the author’s note at the end and saw that Erskine had actually invented a lot of the things that happened to Matilda in the novel. The affair with Richard de Clare, which forms such a big part of the story, was entirely imaginary, and so was the nature of Matilda’s relationship with King John. Not a problem if you already know a lot about the period, but if you don’t then it could be confusing as you would come away thinking that things really happened which actually had no basis in reality. Despite this, I would still have preferred this book to have been set purely in the past!

The edition of Lady of Hay that I read includes an additional short story at the end, written specifically for the 25th anniversary edition and following on from the ending of the original novel. I didn’t like the story and didn’t think it was necessary, though I suppose people who read the book years ago and have been desperate to know what happened next may feel differently! My advice if you’re reading the novel for the first time is to leave it at the original ending, which is fine the way it is.

Lady of Hay was not a great success with me, then, as the negative points probably outweighed the positive. If nothing else, though, it reminded me of the very similar Green Darkness by Anya Seton, which I enjoyed a lot more and would like to re-read one day!

Midnight is a Lonely Place by Barbara Erskine

Midnight is a Lonely Place My first introduction to Barbara Erskine’s work last year, River of Destiny, left me unimpressed but I was assured by Erskine fans that her earlier books were better, so when I found this one at the library I decided to give her another chance. I also thought it sounded like an ideal book to read for the RIP challenge, even though it wasn’t on my original list.

When author Kate Kennedy’s relationship with her boyfriend, Jon, comes to an end and she is forced to move out of their London home, she decides to rent a cottage on the Essex coast where she can spend the winter working on her new biography of Byron. The owners of the cottage, Diana and Roger Lindsey, live in a farmhouse nearby and do their best to make Kate feel welcome, but unfortunately not all the members of the Lindsey family are happy to see her. The eldest son, Greg, an aspiring artist, had been using the cottage for his painting and resents Kate for pushing him out. His fifteen-year-old sister, Alison, is an amateur archaeologist and is furious when she discovers that Kate has been interfering with her dig at what she believes is an ancient Roman grave.

When strange things start to happen at Redall Cottage, Kate suspects Greg and Alison of trying to frighten her away, but after several encounters with ghostly figures she begins to accept that she is being haunted by the ghosts of the Roman soldier Marcus Severus Secundus, his wife Claudia, and the Druid prince, Nion. It seems that Kate has stumbled upon a two thousand-year-old love triangle that ended in a murder and a curse – and secrets that have been buried under the earth for centuries are about to be revealed at last.

Midnight is a Lonely Place was much better than River of Destiny, but still not a book that I can say I loved. I was right about it being a perfect RIP choice, though. It has all the elements of a classic ghost story: a lonely, isolated cottage, an ancient burial site, ghostly apparitions, strange smells and unexplained noises, relentless snow, sleet and blizzards. It’s quite scary in places and you might not want to read it late at night if you’re on your own (while I was finishing the book on Friday evening the real-life weather outside obliged with heavy rain and strong winds which made it even more atmospheric).

While Marcus Severus Secundus, Claudia and Nion do have a strong presence in this novel, the story is set entirely in the early 1990s (which actually feels surprisingly dated from a 2013 perspective) and we only learn about the Roman characters’ lives in brief flashbacks at the start of the chapters. I would have liked their storyline to have been more fully developed as I felt I didn’t get to know them well enough to really care about them or their secrets and this meant that, for me, the novel wasn’t as effective as it would have been with a stronger historical element.

The second half of the book is suspenseful and action packed, as the level of paranormal activity increases and more and more of Kate’s friends and neighbours become involved (at one point it felt as if the whole population of Essex were wandering about getting lost in the snow) but I found the ending disappointingly abrupt. I’m not sure I correctly interpreted the final page and after reading what was quite a long book (more than 400 pages) I had expected a more satisfying conclusion. I certainly enjoyed this book a lot more than River of Destiny but I’m not sure I’ll be looking for any more of Barbara Erskine’s books – though I might still be interested in reading Lady of Hay, her first and best known book.

River of Destiny by Barbara Erskine

This is the first Barbara Erskine novel I’ve read. Knowing how popular she is and that I usually enjoy the type of books she writes – books that combine history and the supernatural – I’ve been meaning to try one for a long time but have never actually got around to it until now.

River of Destiny is set in three different time periods, one contemporary and two historical. The contemporary story follows Zoe and Ken Lloyd, who have moved away from London and bought a converted barn in Suffolk near the River Deben where Ken can indulge in his hobby, sailing. Zoe is not very happy with the move as she does not share Ken’s passion for boats and has had to leave behind a job she enjoyed. To make things worse, she is starting to sense ghostly presences in and around their new home. Gradually Zoe begins to learn that some of these paranormal occurrences could be echoes of The Old Barn’s eventful past.

In the novel’s two historical storylines we learn more about the events of the past which are haunting Zoe in the present day. The first of these is set in the Victorian period and tells the story of Dan, a blacksmith who finds himself a target of the scheming Lady Emily Crosby. Dan’s involvement with Emily will have tragic consequences. The third storyline is set in Anglo-Saxon England in the year 865 where we meet another smith, Eric, and his wife Edith. Amid the threat of a Viking invasion, Eric has been asked to forge a special sword for his lord, which he calls Destiny Maker – but it seems that the sword will not be given the chance to fulfil its destiny.

These three stories all take place in the same area of Suffolk, although in different periods, and are linked by sightings of a ghostly Viking ship sailing up the River Deben through a thick mist. Of the three storylines the one I found the most compelling was the contemporary one, which I thought had the most interesting group of characters: the mysterious Leo who lives alone in The Old Forge, Rosemary Formby who is on a mission to prove that walkers should have the right to cross a farmer’s field, and twelve year-old Jade whose family own one of the other barn conversions, The Summer Barn, and who is determined to cause trouble for Zoe and Leo. It surprised me that the present day story was my favourite, as with my love of historical fiction I usually prefer the historical parts of multiple time-frame novels!

I enjoyed the first few chapters of the book and was anticipating a great read, but as I got further into the story I started to lose interest. I think the problem was that I just didn’t like the way the novel was structured. The time shifts were a bit too frequent and abrupt for me and I also thought the story was told using too many different perspectives. Sometimes each section would only be two or three pages long – or even less – which meant I kept being pulled out of the flow of the story just as I was starting to get interested in it. I’m sure I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if I’d been able to get fully immersed in one storyline and one set of characters before moving on to the next.

So, I was left with mixed feelings about River of Destiny and I’m not sure if I really want to read any of Barbara Erskine’s other novels. If you’re a fan maybe you can convince me to give her another chance?