Of Scotland, Selkies, and Survival: The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

I enjoyed this novel very much.  It’s Elisabeth Gifford’s first and she is a fine storyteller.  This one will sweep away the cobwebs and give you a look into the Scottish Island of Harris – wild, incredibly beautiful and high up on my bucket list.

If I could live anywhere, I’d live in a house with the sea at my door (maybe back just a little to allow for global warming). I’m never happier than when I’m by the sea or in the sea – no matter how cold the water. Yesterday, I even put ocean waves on my Spotify while I was working – because I live in the middle of America where there’s not much surf to be found.  If I could, I would live in Elisabeth Gifford’s Sea House on Harris in the Hebridean Islands.

I wonder if Gifford found an old run-down house on an island and used it as the catalyst for The Sea House? For me, it was a story about family, loss, and the struggle to survive.  Set both in 1976 and in 1860 it is really two stories, knit together by Selkie legends and a beautiful house.  What’s a Selkie? It’s the Scottish word for a mythical creature that resembles a seal in the water but assumes human form on land. (For a great movie on the similar subject, see “The Secret of Roan Inish”)

In 1976 Ruth and her husband Michael are renovating the dilapidated Sea House on Harris.  For Ruth, the house and the island are a return to her mother’s birthplace, something of a homecoming to a home she never had.  While working on the house they find a body of baby with what looks like a fin, buried under the floorboards.  A Selkie child?  The dead infant haunts Ruth and adds to the dis-ease that Ruth experiences on the cusp of becoming a mother.  She carries a child, but she also carries the weight of a rootless existence as an orphan raised in the urban welfare system, the pain of the loss of her mother, and the abandonment by her unknown father.  Ruth clings to family lore that she is descended from the Selkies.  This belief leads her to learn more about the home’s previous inhabitants.  She finds story of Alexander Ferguson and Moira, his servant in his journals, church papers and historical accounts.

In 1860 Moira works in the Sea House – then the manse for the island’s Reverend Alexander Ferguson, who has saved her life after the loss of her family in the Clearances.  [Highland Clearances of the 19th century destroyed communities throughout the Highlands and Islands as the human populations were evicted and replaced with sheep farms.]  Moira is quietly devoted to the Reverend in a way that reminded me of a Dickens novel.  Alexander is a bit of a scientist – he is fascinated by the possibility of a missing race of people – Selkies – from whom he believes he is descended.  As much as Moira loves the Reverend from afar, she hates Lord Marstone – whose clearance of land led to the loss of her family.  She plots revenge on Marstone even as his daughter gets uncomfortably friendly with the Alexander.   And the baby?  I can’t spoil it for you.  But it is good.

How the author got her inspiration for the story, and more about Selkies

Fiction books set in the Hebrides 

Goodreads list of books about Selkies

Find out more about the Scottish Islands

“Turn of the Tide” charts shifting currents of clan loyalties

Turn of The Tide by Margaret Skea, Capercaillie Books

Turn of The Tide by Margaret Skea, Capercaillie Books

It is hard to know where to begin, there were so many things I liked about “Turn of the Tide,”Margaret Skea’s debut novel about the feud between the Montgomeries and the Cunninghams set in 17th Century Scotland.   I have had this one in the queue for a wee while and was grateful for the US Labor Day weekend for uninterrupted hours of reading pleasure.Set in Ayrshire, the novel opens with main character, Munro setting plans in motion for a massacre of key members of the Montgomery clan.  He’s a loyal, albeit reluctant, member of the Cunningham clan who would rather be at home with his wife, bairns and farm.  He carries out this mission for the Earl of Glencairn with a seed of misgiving about continuing the 100-year-old feud that grows throughout the novel.

Retribution is swift for may of those involved in the massacre, but Munro has a handy alibi and escapes harm.  Still, his wife is horrified and his conscience nags him. A friendly encounter with a Montgomery makes him question further the blind loyalty to the Cunningham clan and its leader, the Earl of Glencairn.  Glencairn himself may have some reasonable qualities, but William, his son and heir is a dangerous man.

Auch, I’ll no spoil it for ye!   I will say that Munro’s conscience is the tide that turns, and the reasons behind it make for a captivating read.

I love that the novel shone a light on this feud, which ran for centuries in Ayrshire.  King James VI and his court do feature in the novel, but they are far from the main story.  It was a refreshing departure to find a 16th-17th century novel with a griping tale where royalty is on the fringe and not center stage.  That said, one of the issues in the feud was which clan leader took precedence at court.

This is an emotionally gripping story about a man caught between duty and conscience at a time in history when a man’s livelihood depended upon his loyalty to family and clan –theoretically those would be aligned.  While Skea could have chosen one incident to make Munro’s loyalties change, I’m glad she did not.  It would have had impact, but missed the nuances, the questioning and the soul-searching Munro went through.  And then of course, there was also impact (I willnae spoil it).

Skea clearly knows Ayrshire well, and writes with beautiful detail about the landscape, whether it is describing the miserable rain that can chill you to the bone, or the aconite flowers in a valley.   The dialect adds richness to the characters and is judiciously used.  Helpfully, there’s a glossary in the book so you can look up words like “wabbit” (no, not rabbit).

The Feud of Glencairn and Eglinton

Clan Cunningham (US)

Clan Montgomery (Electric Scotland)

Compelling “what if” novel about the son Anne Boleyn might have had…

What if Anne Boleyn's son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn’s son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn had not miscarried of her son and savior in the winter of 1536 and instead had given Henry VIII the son and heir for whom he was so desperate? Laura Andersen has written her first novel  in the Anne Boleyn Trilogy, “The Boleyn King” based on the tantalizing premise that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had a son named William who lived to become King of England. She creates an England that will still be familiar to Tudor-era fans, one with religious divisions, pretenders to the throne, the threat of Spanish invasion and territorial ambitions in France.The heart of the novel is not Will Tudor but Minuette Wyatt, born the same hour and day as Will and raised as a ward of Dowager Queen Anne (Boleyn). The novel begins with Minuette joining the court in the household of her good friend, Princess Elizabeth. The two of them, together with Will and his best friend Dominic Courtney, are a tight-knit group; the only people they trust are each other. But the friendships are tested by war, a romantic love triangle, and a plot to overthrow Will and place his Catholic sister Mary Tudor on the throne. This was a surprising gem and a thoroughly enjoyable read. I like my historical novels to be accurate, so I did not expect to like a novel that rewrites history, but it is always so hard to read Anne Boleyn’s story without wishing it had a happier ending.  Andersen has given Anne Boleyn fans the happy ending we desire, with a cast of likeable new characters like Minuette, Will, and Dominic, who blend with well-known historical figures like Elizabeth, Robert Dudley, Mary Tudor and the Norfolk family.

This review was first published by the Historical Novel Society in the Historical Novel Review.

Marie MacPherson’s debut novel makes John Knox likable

FirstblastThe First Blast of the Trumpet” is the first of three novels about the life and times of Scottish Reformation preacher John Knox, brilliantly told by Marie MacPherson. The novel begins in pre-Reformation Scotland under James IV, a period of relative stability in the country in which three young girls, including Elisabeth Hepburn, the daughter of the Earl of Bothwell, are coming of age. Elisabeth’s hopes for marriage to David Lindsay are thwarted when she is commanded by her family to enter a convent. It soon becomes clear that Elisabeth is the thread that ties together a diverse cast of characters, from John Knox and Marie of Guise to Cardinal David Beaton and Mary, Queen of Scots. Elisabeth’s family and friends become divided over the need to curtail some of the excesses of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

The author deftly tackles a very complicated, emotionally charged subject and brings it to life with historical and emotional accuracy. John Knox is not, to my mind, a particularly sympathetic figure in Scotland’s history, and yet in the young Knox Marie MacPherson creates a very likeable, though flawed character. I quite liked Knox and felt keenly his struggle to keep faith with his past but follow his calling. I also enjoyed the characterizations of Elisabeth, Davie Lindsay and George Wishart; their troubles tugged at the heartstrings. There is fantastic Scots dialect throughout the book, which as a Scot I enjoyed, but others may wish to have had a glossary in the back of the book.

This review was first published by the Historical Novel Society in the Historical Novel Review August 2013.  

The Queen’s Vow brings dimension to Isabella of Castile

I am delighted today to be part of the virtual book tour for The Queen’s Vow. This was the first novel I’d read by CW Gortner, and I’m happy to have found a great new (to me) author.

(Link to Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/thequeensvowvirtualtour/)

The Queen's Vow PB Tour Banner FINALUntil reading The Queen’s Vow I knew four things about Isabella of Castile.  First, she reigned Castile in her own right. Second, she married her neighbor, Ferdinand of Aragon – an unusual love match.  Third, she had the intellectual curiosity, or good luck, to fund Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas.   She was the mother of Catherine of Aragon, who married Henry VIII.   That was the sum total of my knowledge.  It turns out I have missed a great woman, mighty queen and fascinating character — and so probably have you.

Publication Date: July 2, 2013 Ballantine Books Paperback; 416p ISBN-13: 9780345523976

Publication Date: July 2, 2013
Ballantine Books
Paperback; 416p
ISBN-13: 9780345523976

I luxuriated in the plot, characters and detail in The Queen’s Vow,  and  finished it with a deeper appreciation and admiration for this formidable queen.  Gortner brought Isabella alive, weaving a richly detailed story of her tempestuous life. The novel begins with her exile from the court of her half-brother Enrique and follows her ascension to the throne of Castile, her struggles to unite the Castilian grandees, to create Catholic unity and to defeat the Moors.

The novel spans more than fifty years of tumultuous Spanish history, which I imagine was a monumental research effort. Gortner does a masterful job of keeping the pace moving while explaining the complicated politics of the era and Isabella’s changing role within Castile.  Her life from an early age was awash with intrigue and danger and Gortner deftly gives you the “why” without pausing the action. (Thank you!)

Gortner’s Isabella is honest, loyal and devout – possibly to a fault.  She holds the people around her to high standards, but not higher than she holds herself as the last member of the Trastamara family.   Isabella can be a bit arrogant, self-righteous, a little vain, all of which as a reader I could forgive because she shouldered such a heavy burden.  Gortner does a particularly fine job of portraying Isabella’s religious devotion – too often in novels this can overwhelm a character almost to the point of one-dimensionality, but Gortner gets the balance just right between a devout woman and a flawed character.  Isabella of Castile was a mighty queen and makes for a fascinating main character.

Here are a few other posts you might find interesting 

“The Kingmaker’s Daughter” — Best So Far in Gregory’s Cousins War Series

Best in the Cousin's War Series!

Best in the Cousin’s War Series!

Philippa Gregory‘s latest novel, “The Kingmaker’s Daughter” is her best since “The Other Boleyn Girl.”  It is Gregory at her finest, excelling at coloring between the lines of history and bringing a lesser-known character to life. “The Kingmaker’s Daughter” is every bit as good and juicy a read as “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which I consider to be her finest work.

This was the first novel I’d read with Anne Neville as the main character, although she appears as a secondary character in many historical fiction novels about the War of the Roses.  As a background figure Anne—daughter of the powerful “Kingmaker,” Richard, Earl of Warwick and wife of Richard III—is often portrayed as a kindly but quiet, and sickly figure.

Gregory does not necessarily seek to change person Anne presented to the world, but she gives Anne an internal dialogue and spirit that reveals a character with fierce, determination.   The novel is written in the first person, which Gregory has used for throughout the Cousins’ War series. Perhaps it captivated me because Anne seems outwardly calm and inscrutable but we hear her inner thoughts and feelings that are so much at odds with her public persona.  I loved it.  I loved the suspicion and fear, and power politicking and strength that Anne had. It would never have come across so strongly in another point of view.

The novel tells the story of Anne and her older sister Isabel who grow from contented pawns of their father into significant players in their own right  War of the Roses.

Warwick was called the Kingmaker because he marshaled the resources to catapult Edward of York to the throne, snatching it out from under Henry VI.  But Warwick expected that in return he would unique power in England.  Edward VI had his own ideas.

Edward VI’s hasty, surprise marriage to Elizabeth Woodville wrecked havoc with Warwick’s ambitions for his family, and for England.  Elizabeth Woodville large extended family received favors – favors that Warwick believes should have been bestowed elsewhere. “If you crown a gannet, then she will gobble up everything,” observes young Anne Neville.

Warwick and his supporters feel they have been slighted and begin a destabilizing plot to overthrow Edward VI and bring back Henry VI, the “sleeping king.”  Key components of the plot are the marriages of Anne and Isabel to the Lancaster and York heirs – Edward of Lancaster and George, Duke of Clarence.  One way or the other, the Kingmaker is determined to get one of his daughters on the throne.

Anne and her sister Isabel are every inch Kingmaker’s Daughters. They each believe in their own manifest destiny to be the Queen of England, fulfilling their father’s dreams of glory for his family.  For a while after Warwick rebellion fails and he is executed, the girls believe the cause is lost.  Isabel and her husband struggle to regain favor with Edward, while Anne – a widow of the Lancaster heir – remains in disgrace until Richard, Duke of York claims her as his bride.  It is as his bride that Anne begins to shape her own destiny – quietly, behind the scenes.

Anne was not, in places, particularly sympathetic, but she was a real, emotionally solid character.   Isabel Neville, too, was well drawn but ultimately less likeable.

This was a thoroughly engrossing story, and one of Gregory’s best.  Her next novel in the series “The White Princess” is due out in a month, in which the story of Elizabeth of York – the wife of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII – is told.  I can’t wait.

Being close to the throne brings heartaches to heroines in “A Dangerous Inheritance”

A Dangerous Inheritance

A Dangerous Inheritance

A Dangerous Inheritance interweaves the stories of two lesser-known historical figures who lived 100 years or so apart: Katherine Grey, little sister of the famous Nine Days’ Queen Jane Grey; and Kate Plantagenet, illegitimate daughter of Richard III.  One woman stands to inherit the English throne; the other finds that throne casts a long shadow on her happiness.

We have all heard of Lady Jane Grey, England’s Nine-Day Queen executed by Queen Mary Tudor, but rarely told is the heartbreaking story of her sister, Katherine.  Upon her sister Jane’s death in 1554 Katherine became second in line to throne of England after Elizabeth Tudor.  But of course, there was plenty of controversy about Elizabeth’s right to that throne because she became illegitimate when her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed.  Many thought Katherine had a more legitimate claim (as the eldest surviving grandchild of Henry VIII’s sister Mary), which made her a serious threat to Elizabeth’s right to inherit it.  Elizabeth had good reasons not to like Katherine.  When she became Queen her animosity took on a vicious slant.

Weir portrays Katherine as a pretty, impulsive young thing, who secretly (sometimes not so secretly) covets the throne.  She marries for love without Elizabeth’s knowledge and consent, which is treason. When Elizabeth discovers Katherine is pregnant (with a Tudor heir, possibly a male heir) she locks up Katherine and her husband Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford in the Tower, separated from each other and the world at large.  A sympathetic jailer allows them to visit, with the result that Katherine bore two children in the Tower (infuriating Elizabeth).  Katherine lived out most of her married life in captivity.  Elizabeth I is almost never portrayed as an antagonist, and too many novelists gloss over her spiteful, jealous side.  Not Weir. I’m not sure I’ve read another novel in which Elizabeth I is portrayed as such a petty tyrant. I liked it, it felt true.

The other dangerous inheritance is to be the daughter of a usurper, which was the fate of Kate Plantagenet, the bastard daughter of Richard III.  In 1483, Kate travels to London for her cousin’s coronation only to see her father crowned King instead.  She learns her cousins—the Prince of Wales and his younger brother the Duke of York—have disappeared from the Tower of London.  Kate tries to discover their fate.  It is an uneasy time for Kate, who sees her father become harder, more ruthless and more political.  To broaden his power base Richard marries her to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, leaving her broken-hearted at the loss of her true love, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln.  When Richard III is killed at the Battle of Bosworth, Pembroke pledges his loyalty to Henry Tudor and Katherine goes from political asset to liability.  Moreover, Henry Tudor, now Henry VII, believes she may know the fate of the Princes in the Tower.  In the new Tudor-era, Kate risks her reputation and freedom to support the remaining Yorkists who would overthrow Henry VII.

The glue that holds the stories of these two characters together is the fate of the Princes in the Tower, which Kate tries to uncover during her father’s reign.  Katherine Grey, sixty years later, finds Kate’s notes on the disappearance and takes up the thread of the mystery.  I enjoyed the unique way in which Weir wove the stories of Katherine and Kate, drawing on the similarities in their stories.  Both are torn from their true loves; both are persecuted for their proximity to the throne, both die…well, I’ll not spoil the story further.

I’ve never read anything by Alison Weir I didn’t like, and A Dangerous Inheritance is no exception. She remains one of my favorite authors, as you might be able to tell from my reviews below: