Skea’s sequel – “A House Divided” is even better than “Turn of the Tide”

Screenshot 2015-10-26 17.38.41

Margaret Skea’s brilliant second novel in the Munro family series.

I’ll tell the truth, shall I?  I have been a bit annoyed with some of the historical fiction I’ve read recently.  It is my fault for choosing too many books with the storyline “girl goes to court, meets [insert royal figure], chaos ensues.” This storyline seems prevalent in the Tudor/Elizabethan novels I’ve read. The cure for my malaise? Reading Scottish historical fiction.

Margaret Skea has just this month published the sequel – “A House Divided”  – to her first novel; “Turn of the Tide,” which I savored over several weeks and just finished this weekend.  I loved the first book (see review here) and this one was, I thought, even better. That makes some sense – an author learns a lot between book one and book two.  Skea has skillfully woven a gripping story set again primarily in Ayrshire about the Cunninghame-Montgomerie feud in a restless time period when superstition and witch trials were on the rise. She has done her research – knows the landscape, the history of the feud, and has given it all perfect context with the Munro’s story.

“A House Divided” continues the story of the Munro family, forced into hiding from Glencairn’s heir, the great arch-villain of the series, William Cunninghame.  In the sequel, William Cunninghame has taken possession of the Munro home at Broomelaw and is rebuilding the tower and surrounding holdings for himself. Adam Munro is in France, fighting with the Scots Garde for the French Henri IV.  Kate Munro has taken the surname Grant, and is living with her children at Braidstane – a Montgomerie stronghold.

There’s great dramatic tension from the get-go.  Kate makes a living as a “wise woman” – a cross between a herbalist and midwife.  It is a dangerous occupation in late 16th Century Scotland, where witchcraft trials have become commonplace.  The trouble begins when Kate is called to help Margaret Maxwell, the wife of a Cunninghame supporter.  It is an understatement to say that this good deed does not go unpunished, and leaves Kate and her family increasingly vulnerable to discovery.  Kate is further put at risk when her reputation spreads and she is asked to attend to Queen Anne, the wife of James VI.   Like any good healer she goes where and when she must – even with a high chance of seeing Maxwell and William Cunninghame there.

Court?! Yes, there were a few trips to Court – the Court of James VI to be exact – but the characters in the novel are not conduits who get involved in the affairs of the Court, rather the opposite – which of course saves it from my perturbation with the “girl goes to Court” theme.

I loved this book – the way the tension rose and dipped and then rose higher, dipped in brief resolution and rose again – finally to a great crescendo.  I suspected early on what was coming but that in no way diminished the grip the novel had on me.  I can’t spoil it for you. I was on tenterhooks.  I suppose I will never be sure what a novelist will do to their characters since Eddard Stark died, so I could not be sure of the ending.  I was all-in for the journey – and you will be too.

For lovers of Scotland, Scottish history, and historical fiction more broadly, this is a great read. It left me wondering what the Munro’s will do next.  That’s a good sign – ready for no. 3!

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

Outlander: When Sam Heughan says “Mistress Beauchamp”

Screenshot 2014-08-26 16.20.52When Diana Gabaladon‘s “Outlander” first came out in print twenty-three years ago (damn, how time flies), I remember it took me just two days to devour the entire 600 page novel.  Outlander is the story of a Claire Beauchamp Randall, an English WWII nurse who finds magic in a Stonehenge-like Sarsen stone and is propelled back in time to the years before the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.  There she falls in love and marries a Highland warrior, James (“Jamie”) Alexander Mackenzie Fraser.  Claire is the Outlander – or “Sassenach” in Gaelic: out of her time, her culture, and generally out-of-place.

When Gabaldon announced that Claire and Jamie would come alive on my 50-inch “small” screen, I was not sure I’d like the results, although I knew I’d watch anyway.  After three episodes, I am truly pleased with the adaptation, probably for the attention to detail in the filming and because they’ve stayed true to the original storyline.  Kudos to Starz Originals for buying the series.

Unlike other films supposedly set Scotland but filmed, say, in Ireland or Vancouver, the Outlander series is actually filmed in Scotland in Doune Castle in Perthshire (been there), Falkland and Culross in Fife (there too), Loch Rannoch in the Highlands, and less majestically, a warehouse off the M80 near Cumbernauld. I hear tell this production was the biggest film/TV investment in the country ever. Scotland is an astoundingly beautiful country and not before time that its beauty is captured on a wildly popular international series (the novels have sold at least 25 million copies.)  That’s a lot of eyeballs for the Scottish Tourist Board to convert to visitors.  Just saying.

There are so many fine Scots actors in the show including one of my favorites, Gary Lewis (“My Name is Joe,” “Merlin” (Alator), and “Billy Elliott”).  Love me Annette Badland (“Doctor Who” fame) as Mrs. Fitz.  Tobias Menzies (“Rome” and “Game of Thrones”) hits the right notes as Frank Randall — and so far does a creditable job as Black Jack. The Scots actors learned Gaelic, which is beautiful to hear and adds an authenticity to the Highlands in 1743.   And, they did a good job of casting.

But let’s to it – Claire & Jamie – do they cut it? Irish-born Catriona Balfe does a good job as Claire.  To be clear, that’s not damning her with faint praise.  Claire is a bit prudish, standoffish, independent and uncomfortable in the first few episodes, for all the right and obvious reasons related to finding herself in this very foreign land.  She is a well-brought up (if unconventionally so) Englishwoman in much less refined surroundings.  I’ll be interested to see how Catriona loosens Claire up as things between her and Jamie heat up. I’ve promised my sister Fiona that should happen next week or the week after.  Then, I predict a lot of heat up there in the Highlands.

About that heat – Sam Heughan – first, I’m so pleased the part went to a Scottish actor.  He has Jamie’s quiet heroism, disregard for his own safety, and matter-of-fact ways down perfectly. Not for nothing have kilt jokes been making the rounds of Facebook lately.   Aye, Sam is what my Scots cousins and friends would call a “verry braw laddie.”  It is NOT just the way he says “Missstrrrreessss Beauchamp,”  or carries himself in his kilt.  Sam has great screen chemistry.  I dunno if he has it with Catriona-as-Claire, but he has it with me, my sister Fiona and countless others watching.

We’re into episode 4 next week.  Claire is getting ready to escape…now things will get really exciting!   If you have read the novels, you will find the series is pretty faithful.  Diana Gabaldon has kept the series true to her vision, story lines and characters.  If you have not read the books, I’d say buy it, read ahead and enjoy all things Scotland.

http://outlander.wikia.com/wiki/Outlander_Wiki

My 2012 field trip to Scotland 

“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.  

Mary Queen of Scots, CW’s “Reign”, historical accuracy and why I’ll watch anyway

Reign

Cast of Reign, premiering on the CW Network 17 October 2013

Pity the poor writers and producers of CW’s “Reign.” It has not yet hit TV screens in the US, yet the network is already defending the dramatic license they have taken with the series. (“Reign’ boss defends show’s relaxed approach to historical accuracy“).  The CW team, defending the series, keeps saying that they are “not the History Channel.”No really?   They need to come up with a response that has a bit more credibility. “We’re not the History Channel, so we can make up whatever we like” is not a real defense.  “We’re meeting a market need for a teenage, historical fiction drama and we chose to create a series about Mary Queen of Scots because  a) b) c) …”  might get them less flak and enable them to take their tin hats off.

I’ve already posted a couple of times my surprise that the CW would take huge license with the story of Mary, Queen of Scots.  Her life is replete with all the drama and scandal a series could wish for when told with detailed accuracy.  From the day she  escaped from the approaching English army and hid at Inchmahome Priory on Lake Menteith, Mary’s life was a rollercoaster of dazzling highs (crowned Queen of France) and humiliating lows (abdicating her throne; eventually being beheaded by her cousin Elizabeth I).  Who needs to make s*** up?  I could have given the CW years of great storylines on Mary and her posse (I’m still available for the asking, btw).  Skillfully handled, her story is amazing and heartbreaking.

I love the true life story of Mary Stuart.  I still have a copy of from the early 1970s of Lady Antonia Fraser‘s wonderful non-fiction biography of her, which I read when I was just eleven years old (and very precocious with it!) and captivated me.  I hate that her life is being brought to the small screen with less than great attention to detail and the real drama that was her life.  It is my hope that the creators of Reign have color just a little outside the historical lines, and not disregarded them completely.

But I get it,  I watch the CW from time to time.  OK.  Week to week.  I confess I have a wee addiction to the CW’s ‘Vampire Diaries‘ and have always thought that Ian Somerhalder would make the perfect Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard (here’s my blog post on that sensational story).   I know, I’m probably the oldest CW viewer (it’s sad really).   There is absolutely nothing real about the Vampire Diaries, nothing at all and yet I love it.  Similarly, I watched Starz’s ‘DaVinci’s Demons‘ which, I’m guessing, bears not much more than a passing nod to reality, but I enjoyed it anyway.  Ditto both  The Tudors and The Borgias TV series.  In the CW’s defense,  its target market is probably the 18-24 year-old crowd who want fast-paced, slightly steamy entertainment (I’m guessing here, but I was in that age bracket once) and that target audience are not too worried about what is true and what is not.  The CW is great at marketing to its target audience, and I have to believe they know what it wants.

So if writers and producers make free with historical fact, but create really entertaining drama, should we complain?  Is the CW getting an undeserved kicking before the show even airs?  Perhaps.  For me, I have to see how far they’ve taken their creative license.  I mean, if teenage Mary Stuart starts having it away with, say Nostradamus (who I understand is cast as a young big of al’right played by Rossif Sutherland) I might complain.  But if they are making more of the relationship between Mary and the Dauphin Francis, her betrothed, then I could be OK with it.

One way or another I’ll be watching the series end-to-end when it premiers in October.   For one thing, I can’t imagine Megan Fellows as Henry II’s wife, Catherine de Medici.  It will take some great acting to make me see her as anyone other than Anne of Green Gables!  (Megan, I’m rooting for you.)

Here’s a link to a preview.  (Someone tell me why Mary, Queen of Scots, has an English accent? — People! The actress is Australian, surely they could’ve coached her?)