Review: “The Winter Sea” by Susanna Kearsley

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Paperback: 544 pages

Publisher: Sourcebooks, Inc.

Release Date: 1 December 2010

4 STARS

This book popped up as a recommendation by The Wee Reader in her 2016 round up and I couldn’t resist. I enjoyed plowing through all the Outlander books last year and was looking for something that might fill the little homesick hole in my life since I moved to New York.

History has all but forgotten…

In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown.

Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write.

But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth—the ultimate betrayal—that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her…

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Slains Castle Aberdeenshire

There is some really beautiful description in The Winter Sea. The sense of place is evocative and Kearsley has a knack for seamlessly switching between the modern day and historic voices of the characters. In fact, Carrie’s narration is less ‘self-conscious’ than Diana Gabaldon’s Claire Fraser and I found that I was less aware of ‘reading a construction’ with this book – the narrative flowed well and didn’t jar in the way that Claire’s voice occasionally can. I found the characters to be well fleshed out and likeable in the main and I was pleased that whilst there was a bit of romance, this didn’t dominate.

This book is often classed as a ‘time travel’ novel, but this is slightly misleading. It is more that there are two parallel plot lines that are interwoven. This allows Kearsley to use meta-text to explore not only the events of the past, but also the writing process of her central character. Whilst slightly unexpected, I kept expecting the narratives to meet at some point as per a more traditional time travel arc, it was engaging.

On the downside, Kearsley is overly fond of repeated metaphors, especially when describing the cliffs and ‘winter sea’ of the title. My inner teacher was itching to take out a red pen and circle them – find something new! There is also some difficulty in having a central narrator who, by necessity of social and historical norms, is required to be absent from key bits of action. This only became an issue later in the book, but was frustrating and meant that Kearsley had to get around some awkward changes in narrative voice and time, dropping the pace somewhat.

Overall this was a really fun read, not particularly taxing, but one where you definitely want to pick it up as soon as you get home. If you’re looking for something in the Gabaldon oeuvre or set in the Highlands, then this is a good bet.

Great Reads in Great Places: Providence, Rhode Island

I’m a sucker for wandering around old streets, visiting stately homes and sitting out with a good book and a great view to enjoy my coffee. But where to get this in a country that glorifies the new, the shiny, the current?

I fell in love with New England without ever actually visiting. Instagram is awash with gorgeous images of colonial clapboard houses, delicious seafood platters and LL Bean boots surrounded with enough snow and plaid to make a lumberjack blush. I was left with the impression that there is something rather magical and quaint about these northern states and as an émigré of Old England, I was curious to see how history was conserved and presented in the land of the free and home of the ‘what?! It’s 50 years old?! Tear it down and build something new!’ Part of me was secretly hoping that I would be able to find a little something of the wild and beautiful places described in Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series and Sara Donati’s ‘Wilderness’ books on the way – obviously with 21st century luxuries like plumbing though!

Given that I can’t actually get on a plane without a doctor’s note now, being eight and a half months pregnant, one of our main criteria was that we should be able to road trip there in a decent amount of time from our Brooklyn apartment. Where was within a four hour drive of New York and could be ‘done’ in a weekend?

We plotted a route that would take us up the coast as far as Providence, Rhode Island, where we would spend the night, and would enable us to stop off and take in some typically New England sights.

The main book I’d be taking with me on this trip was Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper”. Set in fictional Upper Darby, Rhode Island, the book follows the story of 13 year old Anna who sues her parents for medical emancipation after she is expected to donate a kidney to her sister who is suffering from leukaemia.

Our first stop was in Connecticut. Mystic is famous for its pizza and its seaport and neither disappointed. The town itself is small and nestled on the coast, consisting of a busy (even in February) Main Street complete with cafés, artisan shops promoting local craftspeople and rather ingeniously, its very own Mystic Psychic!

Lunch was, obviously, at Mystic Pizza – the restaurant made famous by the eponymous 1988 Julia Roberts film. It proved to be a lovely slice of Americana; friendly staff and tasty deep pan pizza were the order of the day. They even have a decent range of gluten free options which was something we weren’t necessarily expecting outside of New York.

Our last stop in Mystic was the outdoor museum at Mystic Seaport. We arrived quite late in the afternoon and managed to get half price tickets as well – something to think about if you’re like us and tend to whizz around museums! In amongst the tall ships and whaling boats on display is also a fully restored whaling village. This was the best part of the museum for me. The attention to detail is second to none and the staff on hand to talk you through are extremely knowledgable. The actors in costume were a nice touch! I imagine that this gets very busy in the Summer months, but we really felt like we didn’t miss much coming in the off season.

Providence would be our main base for the weekend. We were staying at the Renaissance Downtown Providence – a lovely, if corporate feeling, hotel that overlooks the Rhode Island State House. Our concierge recommended Hemenway’s restaurant as a taste of New England for dinner. This raw bar and seafood specialty restaurant was extremely busy and definitely needs to be booked in advance. There’s a brilliant range of dishes on offer including classic chowder, oysters and lobster served in a myriad of imaginative and delicious ways.

The next morning we decided to walk around the Brown University campus and see Benefit Street, the main historic district. I was able to set up camp in these gorgeous surroundings and catch up on my Great Read.

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Jodi Picoult’s novel has a tendency to divide readers. Lauded by many, others find her style contrived and lightweight in nature. There is no doubt that this book is uneven in terms of how well each of the narrative voices are fleshed out, but in the main Picoult has done a good job of crafting separate rhythms and perspectives. The story is shamelessly emotional and uses a variety of metaphoric devices to ensure that you are in no doubt about the differing directions the characters are pulled in. It’s not a particularly subtle book, but it is eminently readable and, as a soon to be mother, certainly made me question what I might do if I found myself in Sara Fitzgerald’s awful situation. I enjoyed the pace of this novel and felt that it was easy to get swept along with the journeys these characters take.

On our way back to Brooklyn we decided to stop in Newport and see the harbour and mansions that snake around the lower coast. I loved the rows of immaculate clapboard houses that lead onto upmarket Thames Street. It was strange to see plaques on the houses detailing date of construction and the original owner; some of the buildings were only 30 years older than our cottage in London! There was much about this little coastal town that reminded me of Padstow and Rock in Cornwall – a plethora of restaurants serving the day’s fresh catch and plenty of places to indulge in some serious retail therapy, especially if you have a thing for nautical home decor.

Standing proud on the cliff edge at the eastern tip is The Breakers – the grandest of the mansions around Bellevue Avenue, and former home of the Vanderbilt railroad family. This glorious Gatsbyesque monument to wealth and luxury has fabulous views of the rugged New England coastline and is full of carefully restored and preserved furniture from the house’s golden age in the late 19th / early 20th century. The audio tour is comprehensive and gives you a couple of hours to explore the main rooms.

Overall this was a really good mini road trip and we definitely felt that we were able to fit enough into the two days to give us a flavour of New England. I can’t wait to come back!

Already read ‘My Sister’s Keeper’?

Why not try these other titles set in Connecticut and Rhode Island:

  • ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ – John Updike
  • ‘Summer by the Sea’ – Susan Wiggs
  • ‘Theophilius North’ – Thornton Wilder
  • ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • ‘The Stepford Wives’ – Ira Levin
  • ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ – Mark Twain
  • ‘Revolutionary Road’ – Richard Yates
  • ‘The Great Gatsby’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald (not set in New England but reading this whilst walking around The Breakers is a perfect combo!)

If you have Rhode Island or Connecticut based recommendations then add them to the comments below 🙂

More Dark Materials…

I was very excited to hear on the bookish grapevine yesterday that Philip Pullman is revisiting His Dark Materials in October this year with a new ‘equel’ series – another trilogy of books set both before and after the original.

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For those of you who might not have come across these books, perhaps you were so obsessed with Harry Potter that they passed you by in the late 90s / early 00s, this clever, magical narrative explores the adventures of Lyra Belacqua and her daemon companion Pantalaimon as they get sucked into a world of Dust and realm jumping that takes her far beyond her home at Jordan College, Oxford.

I have long been a fan of Pullman’s work – it’s complex and has real depth that takes it farther than most YA fiction dares to tread. Not only is it full of the magical fantasy elements that you might expect, but it deals with interesting concepts of family, loyalty and friendship in a manner that doesn’t simplify or patronise. The relationships displayed are real, flawed and unexpected – keeping you hooked throughout.

Pullman explained that the draw to return to His Dark Materials was built not only on a desire to explore the world of Dust in more depth, but that he has been influenced by recent political events: “at the centre of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organisation, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free”.

These books have never shied away from controversy – they have been roundly condemned by Christian organisations as promoting a world without God. Pullman is a well known supporter of the British Humanist Association and describes himself  as a Church of England Atheist. It will be interesting to see how these ideas are developed further in the new trilogy.

If you haven’t yet got stuck into this brilliant series – do it. The first book in the new series is being released on October 19th.

http://www.philip-pullman.com

@PhilipPullman

A Bawdy Night of Bard and Booze

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What happens when Britain’s greatest Bard meets tequila swigging Yanks off Broadway??

Genius happens. Silly, rude, sloshing Genius.

5 Stars

When booking to take out two sober pregnant ladies, one of whom has made a career out of studying and staging the Swan of Avon’s work – a more sensible man might have avoided a show with the title ‘Drunk Shakespeare’. Luckily I’m not married to a sensible man.

The premise of the show is that a nominated actor, each performance, is forced to down multiple shots and is then challenged to perform in a cut back version of a classic Shakespeare play: “Macbeth”. Our nominated actor was Hayley Palmer – and my my she was a valiant Lady Macbeth!

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The format is not in itself a new concept. There’s Drunk History for starters and the Reduced Shakespeare Company has been producing abridged versions of the plays for donkey’s years. (I’m also fairly certain that I’ve seen really bad student takes on it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival).

The thing that’s so wonderful about this production is that it dances between decent delivery of the key speeches throughout the play and bizarre, high energy current events sketches and improv. The cast’s ability to maintain an almost frantic approach for the full, uninterrupted 90 mins was impressive, and it’s genuinely funny.

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The show is clearly very tightly edited – despite the ‘off-the-cuff’ style of performance – but it allows just enough room for playing with the audience and the actors are skilled in bouncing off one another. They work hard to cultivate a feeling of being ‘in cahoots’ with the audience, from the gorgeous close quartered library set to the sharp, but never nasty, banter that flies across the stage.

This won’t be for you if you can’t bear to see the poetry butchered – or if you are squeamish about bad language and badly simulated sex – but if you like to laugh and like your classics tossed up with a decent helping of pop culture, this is one of the best nights out I’ve had in years – even stone cold sober.

http://www.drunkshakespeare.com

@drunkshakes

Bottoms Up with “The Thin Man”

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Would vintage 1930s New York be useful for helping me acclimatise? No. But it was jolly entertaining.

Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man’ is sparse and very of its time. The characters are almost entirely unlikeable, apart from Nora, and it’s a miracle anyone was able to get any deducing done given that they all seem to hit the sauce before breakfast.

Still – an engaging murder mystery with plenty of glamour.

I’d rather have a bit of P.G Wodehouse though… Tally Ho!

Welcome to “Americanah”

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I feel as if Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 offering, “Americanah,” fell into my lap at the perfect time. As a recent immigrant to Brooklyn, I was looking to diversify my reading list and maybe find out something of the place I had landed in through the eyes of others who have found themselves swallowed up by this noisy, raucous city. I had read Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” some years ago and whilst I couldn’t remember much specific about it, vaguely thought it had been enjoyable at the time. This seemed like a safe bet book – especially with the lovely gold New York Times Book Review 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR medal tacked on the front cover.

What I wasn’t expecting was to find a book that spoke to me so clearly that I couldn’t sleep the night I finished it. Here was a woman who had perfectly captured my own feelings on being dropped into the Brooklyn maelstrom. There are moments where she describes the simple experience of being in an American grocery store, the enormous, flavourless fruit, the overwhelming array of toxic multicoloured cereals, of accents heard but not understood and I was able to recognise myself the week before. A sense of things being familiar in some ways and inexplicably alien in others. I will never make the mistake of asking the concierge for a ‘parcel’ as supposed to ‘package’ again…

There is much in this book that is thought provoking. Whilst I do not share the heroine, Ifemelu’s, Nigerian roots and therefore experiences of race and race relations in the USA, her sense of separateness, otherness and struggle to find an identity that was both true to where she came from and open to embracing her new home was something that I could viscerally identify with. It is testament to Adichie’s skilful prose that this book is able to transcend, for me, the very obvious social commentary regarding race and culture.

That this novel has also made an appearance in my life the week of Trump’s new travel ban seems also, searingly prescient. The talk of immigrants is everywhere in New York at the moment. The collective horror and urgent conversations around dinner tables making the issues surrounding immigration and race central to more people’s lives than ever before. It has been eye opening and disconcerting to find myself even tiptoeing on the other side of the fence, to think of myself as an immigrant and what that means in terms of personal identity – how much loyalty to have to home and how much to embrace a new culture. Adichie’s bold and sharply observed portraits have driven home how complex and ever present the issue of race, of otherness is, not only in the USA, but also Britain. Something that last year, whilst comfortably ensconced in my teaching job, living in my cottage, I would have academically appreciated but not dwelled upon, has been thrown starkly into the light for me.

And so my small sense of otherness in the vast sprawl of New York continues. The realisation that whilst “Americans are so friendly!” “New York is different,” everyone is in their own bubble. Separate. Which this new immigrant finds oddly reassuring.