The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley

The Vanished Days, Susanna Kearsley’s latest book, is a prequel to The Winter Sea, which happens to be one of the few Kearsley novels I haven’t read yet! However, it didn’t matter at all as this is a completely separate story and works perfectly as a standalone.

The novel opens in 1707, the year of the Act of Union between Scotland and England. A few years earlier, Scotland had been involved in the unsuccessful Darien Scheme – an attempt to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama – and as part of the union settlement, England will pay compensation to those who had lost money due to the failed venture. When a young widow, Lily Aitcheson, comes forward to claim the wages owed to her husband Jamie Graeme, who was killed during the Darien expedition, Sergeant Adam Williamson is asked to investigate her claim. There is some doubt as to whether Lily and the man she insists was her husband were really married – and unless she can prove that their marriage was valid, she won’t be entitled to the money.

As Adam begins his investigation, searching for witnesses to the wedding or anyone who can say that it ever took place, he finds himself becoming more and more attracted to Lily. And, in chapters which alternate with the 1707 ones, we go back to 1683 and follow Lily through her childhood and the sequence of events that lead to her arriving in Edinburgh and claiming to be the widow of Jamie Graeme. Unlike most of Kearsley’s novels, which either involve some form of time travel or are set in two completely different time periods, one contemporary and one historical, this book is entirely historical, with the two threads of the story set just a few decades apart. There are none of the other supernatural elements that often appear in her novels either, so this one has a slightly different feel.

It was interesting to read about an aspect of Scottish history that doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention in fiction. Although I was aware of the Darien Scheme and some of the events leading to the Act of Union, I’m not sure if any of the historical novels I’ve read have actually covered this subject. Some real historical figures appear in The Vanished Days too and Kearsley explores some of the political and religious tensions building in Scotland during this time – a reminder that the Jacobite rebellions are on the horizon. The focus, though, is on Lily’s personal story, whether seen through her own eyes or those of Adam and the people he interviews who once knew her.

This is quite a long book and I found it a bit slow for a while in the middle, but I was rewarded by a great ending with an unexpected twist. It was something I hadn’t seen coming at all and the sort of thing that makes you want to read the whole book again to see if there were any clues. I won’t do that just yet, but I will definitely try to read The Winter Sea soon, along with the other two Kearsley novels I still haven’t read, The Shadowy Horses and Bellewether.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 20/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

It’s been a few years since I last read a Susanna Kearsley book and as I still have two or three left to read I decided to include her most recent, A Desperate Fortune, on my 20 Books of Summer list. There are some connections between this book and her previous one, The Firebird, but they both stand alone and it’s not necessary to read them in order.

Like many of Kearsley’s novels, A Desperate Fortune is set in two different time periods. First, in the modern day, we meet Sara Thomas, a young woman with a special talent for solving mathematical puzzles and breaking codes. Sara also has Asperger’s and relies on the friendship and support of her cousin Jacqui. Jacqui works in the publishing business and when one of her authors, the historian Alistair Scott, asks for help in deciphering a journal written in code, it is Sara who gets the job.

The other thread of the novel takes place in 1732 and follows the story of the diary-writer, twenty-one-year-old Mary Dundas, who is half French and half Scottish. Mary’s family are Jacobites – supporters of the exiled James Stuart, who they believe is the rightful King James VIII of Scotland and III of England. Setting off on a journey across France with her brother Nicolas one day, Mary has no idea what he has planned for her, and is shocked to find herself caught up in a plot to protect a fellow Jacobite who is on the run from the law. Her diary tells of the lengths she goes to, the disguises she adopts and the dangers she faces in trying to conceal her companion’s true identity.

These two storylines alternate throughout the book, so that we read several entries from Mary’s journal, followed by Sara’s experiences in decoding it. Both women are interesting characters – and there are a few parallels between the two – but I found Mary’s story much more gripping and couldn’t help thinking that it would have worked just as well on its own without Sara’s framing it. There’s a romance for each woman too, but again, it was Mary’s that I found most convincing; although I did like Sara’s love interest, it all seemed to happen too quickly and too conveniently.

It was interesting to revisit the subject of the Jacobites, who also feature in The Firebird – although the two books explore the topic from very different perspectives, with this one being set in France and the other in Russia. The author’s note at the end of the book is long and comprehensive, discussing some of the choices made in writing this novel and explaining which parts of the story are based on fact and which are fictional. I was surprised to see how many of the characters I’d assumed were purely imaginary were actually inspired by real people!

I did enjoy A Desperate Fortune, though not as much as most of the other Susanna Kearsley novels I’ve read. My favourites seem to be the ones with supernatural elements, such as The Firebird, The Rose Garden and Mariana. I always like Kearsley’s writing style, though – there’s something so comforting about it, so easy and effortless to read. It’s the same feeling that I get when I pick up a book by Mary Stewart. I’m looking forward now to reading my remaining two Kearsley novels, The Shadowy Horses and Sophia’s Secret (the UK title for The Winter Sea).

This is book 12/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge. (I’m aiming for 15 now, I think – anything over that will be a bonus!)

Season of Storms by Susanna Kearsley

Season of Storms Happy New Year! I had considered posting about my reading plans for 2015 today but, to be honest, I don’t really have any. I know I want to do some re-reading this year, as that’s something I’ve been neglecting, but apart from that I don’t have any specific goals in mind. I want to keep things stress-free and just read the books that I really want to read without worrying about challenges and targets. I do still have some December reads to tell you about, so I thought I would get on with writing about those instead…starting with Susanna Kearsley’s 2001 novel, Season of Storms.

Our narrator, Celia Sands, is a twenty-two-year-old actress who has been offered the lead role in a play being staged at an outdoor theatre in the grounds of Il Piacere, an Italian villa. The play – Il Prezzo – was written in the 1920s by the playwright Galeazzo D’Ascanio for his lover, another actress also called Celia Sands. The night before the play was due to have its first performance, the first Celia disappeared and was never seen again.

Now, decades later, the second Celia Sands (no relation to the first despite being named after her) has been invited by D’Ascanio’s grandson, Alessandro, to star in a renewed version of the play. Arriving at Il Piacere, she meets the other people involved with the play and soon becomes aware of tensions within the group; it seems to Celia that everyone has a secret to hide. As the preparations continue and rehearsals begin, strange things start to happen – a servant disappears without trace, a man is found dead, and Celia suspects that her room may be haunted – and the mysteries of the past become entwined with the mysteries of the present.

Season of Storms is the seventh Susanna Kearsley book I’ve read and the first one I’ve been slightly disappointed by. I think part of the problem was that the pace was very slow at the beginning and the story took a very long time to really get started; I think the book could probably have been a lot shorter without losing any essential plot points. By the time the various threads of the novel began to come together in the second half of the book I was struggling to stay interested.

Unlike some of Kearsley’s other books, this one is set almost entirely in the present with only a few flashbacks in which we are given some glimpses of Galeazzo D’Ascanio and the first Celia Sands. The connections between the past and present storylines weren’t strong enough and I felt that the historical one wasn’t resolved properly; I would have liked more focus on solving the mystery of the first Celia’s disappearance and on the supernatural aspects of the novel, which never really came to anything. I was also disappointed by the romantic side of the story – there was no real spark between Celia and her eventual romantic interest and he was not one of my favourite Kearsley heroes.

On a more positive note, Kearsley’s novels always have wonderful settings and this one is no exception! Il Piacere, the playwright’s villa, is on Lake Garda, somewhere I have never been but have always wanted to visit. The descriptions of the estate and the surrounding area are beautiful. Before arriving at Il Piacere, Celia spends some time in Venice, which is somewhere I have visited and I loved watching her explore St Mark’s Square and the Basilica, the canals and the bridges.

There were other things that I liked – the little theatrical touches such as dividing the story into Acts and Scenes and starting the chapters with quotes from plays; and Celia’s relationship with Bryan and Rupert, the gay couple who raised her when her glamorous actress mother neglected her – but there were too many negative points for me to really be able to say that I enjoyed this book.

Not a favourite, then, but I’m pleased I still have two more unread Susanna Kearsley novels to read – and a new one, A Desperate Fortune, to look forward to in 2015.

Named of the Dragon by Susanna Kearsley

Named of the Dragon I love Susanna Kearsley’s books. I always know what to expect from them: a beautiful setting, some romance, some history, a touch of mystery and an element of the supernatural. Named of the Dragon, one of her earlier novels from 1998, is no exception.

Our narrator is Lyn Ravenshaw, a literary agent from London, who has been suffering from nightmares since being widowed and losing her baby son several years earlier. When one of her clients, Bridget Cooper, a children’s author, invites her to her boyfriend’s home in Wales for the Christmas holidays, Lyn accepts. She’s intrigued by the thought of meeting Bridget’s boyfriend, the author James Swift, and hopes she’ll be able to convince him to sign for her agency.

In Wales, Lyn and Bridget look forward to celebrating a traditional Christmas with James and his brother, Christopher, but Lyn’s holiday is disrupted by vivid and disturbing dreams in which a mysterious woman dressed in blue begs her to take care of her son. The Swifts’ neighbour, Elen, another young widow with a baby boy, is also having nightmares and Lyn soon becomes aware of a connection between herself, Elen and the woman in blue. With the help of the reclusive Welsh playwright, Gareth Gwyn Morgan, Lyn delves into local myths and legends in an attempt to make sense of what is happening.

Although I wasn’t really ready for a Christmas novel just yet (it’s only September!) I did love the Welsh setting. James and Christopher live in a farmhouse in Angle, Pembrokeshire and Kearsley describes the house and the surrounding area beautifully. I also enjoyed the descriptions of Pembroke Castle, where Lyn spends an interesting afternoon. I find that being able to see pictures of where a book is set really adds something to the reading experience and photographs of the locations mentioned in the book can be found on Susanna Kearsley’s website.

I really liked Lyn – Kearsley is very good at creating narrators who are easy to like and identify with, without seeming too good to be true – and there’s an interesting assortment of supporting characters too. Even Gareth’s dog, Chance, has a personality of his own. Bridget was a bit overwhelming at first – she’s the sort of person I would find annoying in real life and find annoying in fiction too – but I did warm to her after a while. I loved the hero of the novel, though I won’t tell you who he is (but if you know your poetry and your Arthurian legends, the fact that Lyn’s full name is Lynette might give you a clue). I just wished his romance with Lyn hadn’t been quite so subtle and that we could have seen them together more often.

There were lots of poems, myths, legends and historical facts worked into the novel, with literary quotes and references introducing each chapter. I was pleased to see that the story of Merlin and King Vortigern was included, having just read The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart! It’s always fun to come across connections in your reading like that, isn’t it? The paranormal aspect of the story, though, didn’t seem to have any real purpose and didn’t resolve itself very satisfactorily. For that reason, this is not a favourite Kearsley novel and doesn’t really compare with her later ones such as The Firebird or The Rose Garden.

I have another of Kearsley’s books, Season of Storms, waiting to be read and am looking forward to it!

The Splendour Falls by Susanna Kearsley

The Splendour Falls This is the fifth Susanna Kearsley book I’ve read and while I’ve enjoyed them all (I think The Firebird is my favourite) I found this one a bit different from most of the others. Usually Kearsley’s novels include a supernatural element and some form of time-travel, whether it’s via telepathy, reincarnation or being physically transported through time, but this book doesn’t have anything like that, being set almost entirely in the present.

The Splendour Falls is narrated by Emily Braden, who has agreed to join her historian cousin, Harry, on a trip to Chinon in France where he is planning to do some research on the Plantagenets. Knowing Harry’s absent-mindedness and lack of consideration for other people, she is not surprised when she reaches Chinon and discovers that her cousin is nowhere to be seen. As she waits for him to arrive, Emily forms some new friendships among the other guests staying in her hotel and also becomes intrigued by the stories of two Isabelles who lived in Chinon several centuries apart.

The first is the 13th century queen, Isabelle of Angouleme, wife of King John of England, who may have hidden some treasure in the tunnels beneath Chinon while the castle was under siege from John’s enemies. The second Isabelle lived during World War II and is also believed to have hidden a treasure of her own to keep it safe from the Nazis. As Emily begins to grow concerned for her missing cousin she learns more about both Isabelles and their lost treasures. Could they be linked to Harry’s disappearance?

I enjoyed The Splendour Falls but it’s not one of my favourite Kearsley novels as I do prefer the ones with stronger historical elements (I really wanted more information on the two historical Isabelles). This is more of a mystery novel than a historical novel and in this respect it reminds me of Every Secret Thing more than any of her other books. I think one of the things I liked best about this book was the setting. Kearsley’s descriptions of Chinon – the narrow streets and steps, the vineyards, the medieval castle (the Château de Chinon) and the Chapelle Sainte-Radegonde – are all so beautiful. I’ve never been to that part of France but this book had me instantly searching Google for pictures and it does look as lovely as it sounds.

My only problem with The Splendour Falls was trying to keep track of all the characters. A huge number of them were introduced in the first few chapters, including two Canadian brothers, a French vineyard owner, a British musician, a German artist, an American couple and a gypsy. It was completely overwhelming and I felt I didn’t have time to get to know one character before another one appeared! I also found it hard to believe that Emily would instantly become such good friends with a group of random strangers staying in the same hotel.

This book has been reissued by Sourcebooks for the first time this week, but it’s not a new Susanna Kearsley novel. While I was reading I kept thinking that the ‘present day’ setting felt slightly dated – there was a noticeable lack of modern technology which would surely have made Emily’s attempts to contact Harry a lot easier – and the explanation for this is that the book was originally published in 1995. I wouldn’t recommend this as a first introduction to Kearsley’s work, but I think existing fans will probably find a lot to enjoy in The Splendour Falls, as I did.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

The Firebird Nicola Marter has a special talent, but it’s one that she doesn’t like to admit to – by touching an object she is able to see the history of the other people who have held that same object in the past. When a woman brings a wooden carving of a Russian firebird into the art gallery where Nicola works, asking for a valuation, Nicola is faced with a dilemma. The woman claims that the firebird was given to one of her ancestors by Empress Catherine of Russia and when Nicola holds the carving in her hands she knows that this is the truth, but unless she can find a way to prove it the carving is worth nothing.

Nicola decides to find out all she can about the history of the firebird but as her own psychic abilities are not strong enough, she enlists the help of an old boyfriend, Rob McMorran. Rob shares her special gift of psychometry, but while Nicola tries to keep hers a secret, Rob is happy for everyone to know about his powers. This difference in attitude is the reason they ended their relationship several years earlier, but Nicola knows that Rob is the only person who can help her now. Together they trace the path of the firebird from Slains Castle in Scotland to a convent in Belgium and finally to eighteenth century St Petersburg, and along the way they unravel the story of a young girl called Anna and learn how the Empress’s wooden firebird came to be in her possession.

This book surprised me because based solely on the synopsis, I’d expected to be learning about Russian history, but instead the focus is on Scottish history, particularly the Jacobites (the supporters of the deposed King James VII of Scotland – and II of England – and his heirs). I’ve read other historical fiction novels about the Jacobite Risings and always find it a sad subject to read about; the Jacobites were so devoted to their cause and so hopeful of success, but we know that all their efforts would only end in tragic failure. Yet somehow, in all my previous reading about the Jacobites, I had missed the fact that as well as looking to France and Spain for support, there was also a community of Jacobites working in Russia. It was interesting to read the author’s note at the end of the book and find out a bit more about the historical aspects of the story, including which of the eighteenth century characters really existed and which were fictional.

I often see Susanna Kearsley compared to Mary Stewart and in this book, the telepathic connection between Nicola and Rob reminded me of the one between Bryony and her secret lover in Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat, who could also read each other’s minds and communicate without words – though of course Nicola and Rob have the additional ability of being able to see into the past and watch the actions of people who lived many years ago. I loved following Anna’s story (especially in the earlier chapters set in Scotland and Ypres) but I also enjoyed the contemporary storyline and the interactions between Rob and Nicola. The transitions from one time period to another were smooth and natural and I thought the balance between the two felt right.

The Firebird is a sequel to Sophia’s Secret (or The Winter Sea depending on which country you’re in) and the character of Rob has also appeared in another Kearsley book, The Shadowy Horses. I haven’t read either of those two books yet, though that didn’t seem to be a problem as we are given all the background information we need early in the novel. I’m still looking forward to going back and reading them both, even if I’ve done things in the wrong order!

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.