The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

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Title: The Pearl Thief

Author: Elizabeth Wein

Genre: Children’s/YA Historical Fiction

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Published: 1st July, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 408

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: From the internationally acclaimed bestselling author of Code Name Verity comes a stunning new story of pearls, love and murder – a mystery with all the suspense of an Agatha Christie and the intrigue of Downton Abbey.

Sixteen-year-old Julie Beaufort-Stuart is returning to her family’s ancestral home in Perthshire for one last summer. It is not an idyllic return to childhood. Her grandfather’s death has forced the sale of the house and estate and this will be a summer of goodbyes. Not least to the McEwen family – Highland travellers who have been part of the landscape for as long as anyone can remember – loved by the family, loathed by the authorities. Tensions are already high when a respected London archivist goes missing, presumed murdered. Suspicion quickly falls on the McEwens but Julie knows not one of them would do such a thing and is determined to prove everyone wrong. And then she notices the family’s treasure trove of pearls is missing.

This beautiful and evocative novel is the story of the irrepressible and unforgettable Julie, set in the year before the Second World War and the events of Code Name Verity. It is also a powerful portrayal of a community under pressure and one girl’s determination for justice.

~*~

The Pearl Thief is set in England in 1938, in the year that preceded the incoming storm of World War Two, preceding Hitler’s march across Europe, and it’s characters show no indication that they are aware of the impending threat to their lives. Julie is on her way home from boarding school – a final summer at her family’s ancestral home before it becomes a school On her way hoe, Julie is attacked, and a well known archivist from London goes missing, presumed dead. And it is the McEwen family, a family of Travellers, who become caught up in the mystery after taking care of Julie and getting her to hospital. When Julie notices the family pearls have gone missing, she tries to piece together the night she was attacked, and slowly, a mystery unfolds. Whilst the investigation surges on, even with a lack of evidence, the suspicious eye is cast over the McEwens, despite Julie’s protestations that they could not have done it, questioning the reasoning everyone has. Amidst all this, the treasure trove of Murray pearls has gone missing, and Julie is determined to find it, and together with her brother, Jamie, and the McEwens, she strives to solve the theft – and a murder, with results that are as surprising as the rest of the novel.

For Julie, it is a final childhood summer, where she can relive the good memories and make some new ones, but at the same time, new discoveries about her mother and the McEwens, and her interactions with Ellen and her brother, have Julie questioning what she knows about herself and her feelings, but the world that she has known in comparison to Ellen’s world, and what they learn from each other through their new-found friendship. Like any friends, they had their disagreements on things and it took them a while to see that what something meant to Ellen, meant something different to Julie and vice versa, encapsulating the formation of an unexpected friendship between the two girls.

There are moments when the novel does not dwell on the mystery of the missing pearls and murder of the archivist, but rather, on the formation of the relationships between Julie and the Travellers, and how this begins to affect her and how she sees herself and the world. This character development ensures a solid grounding for the story, and even though the mystery was intriguing, it was nice to see the realistic approach that didn’t involve the obsessive nature and drive to solve the mystery, but rather, a nice balance between getting the characters and plot right to get from beginning to end, and allowing the characters to overcome hurdles and distractions, but ultimately, solving a mystery that had a very unexpected outcome, and an enjoyable journey to get there as a reader.

The Pearl Thief is marketed towards the children’s and Young Adult market, but I still enjoyed it and the setting that seemed to sing from every page – the Scottish landscape, and the speech of the characters cemented the time and place effectively. A great novel for anyone who likes mysteries, adventure and intriguing characters.

Booktopia

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Beyond the Wild River by Sarah Maine

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Title: Beyond the Wild River

Author: Sarah Maine

Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 26/4/17

Format: Paperback

Pages: 400

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: A spellbinding and beautiful novel from a major new voice in fiction, perfect for fans of Kate Morton, Santa Montefiore and Rachel Hore.

From the author of THE HOUSE BETWEEN TIDES, comes an atmospheric and stunningly evocative historical novel. Perfect for fans of Eowyn Ivey’s TO THE BRIGHT EDGE OF THE WORLD, Stef Penney’s UNDER A POLE STAR, and Sarah Perry’s THE ESSEX SERPENT.

‘Maine skilfully balances a Daphne du Maurier atmosphere with a mystery… compelling’ Kirkus Reviews Scotland, 1893. Nineteen-year-old Evelyn Ballantyre, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, has rarely strayed from her family’s estate in the Scottish Borders. She was once close to her philanthropist father, but his silence over what really happened on the day a poacher was shot on estate land has come between them.

An invitation to accompany her father to Canada is a chance for Evelyn to escape her limited existence. But once there, on the wild and turbulent Nipigon river, she is shocked to discover that their guide is James Douglas, Ballantyre’s former stable hand, and once her friend. He disappeared the night of the murder, charged with the shooting.

Evelyn never believed that James was guilty – and her father’s role in the killing has always been mysterious. What does he have to hide? In the wild landscape of a new world, far from the constraints of polite society, the secrets and lies surrounding that night are finally stripped away, with dramatic consequences.

~*~

Evelyn Ballantyre has rarely left her family estate in the Scottish Borders, but a mystery from five years ago has put a strain on their relationship. In 1888 , there was a murder on the estate, and Evelyn knows the wrong man was accused, and so does her father, but he refuses to reveal the truth. They encounter the wrongly accused young man, James, on their trek in Canada as they travel across the country, taking in the wilderness and encountering the Native Americans living there at the time, faced with emerging memories of the murder, and the cover up that has led them to where they are. Through these scenes, a mystery emerges, and Evelyn is determined to prove to her father that James isn’t the killer and force him to tell the truth and reveal what he knows.

The wilderness of nineteenth century Canada is as much a character in the novel as the Ballantyres, James and their travelling companions. Evelyn and those she is travelling with are as intrigued by the mystery of the murder back in Scotland, yet they seem more fascinated by the Canadian wilderness, and the unknown culture they are faced with – though attitudes of the time and the approach they took in showing their fascination affect the actions and words of the characters. Yet Sarah Maine has managed to show these attitudes sensitively and with care, illustrating the different attitudes, but not resorting to using derogatory terms of the time, but still maintaining the fascination of the Other and the unknown prevalent at a time when contact between cultures wasn’t as instantaneous as it is today.

The character and setting of the Canadian adds another layer: it is the mystery of a new land, a physical place, contrasted against the mystery of the murder – leading to Evelyn wondering if the murderer is actually with them, given that James didn’t do it. In making the setting a character, Sarah Maine has used it to show the flaws in the other characters, as well as showing this through their interactions with each other, eventually bringing the truth out into the open.

I enjoyed the pacing – it was slow at times, but only when it needed to be, and wasn’t too quick. It fitted the genre and plot nicely, and ensured a delightful read with an unexpected ending that I wasn’t sure would happen, but was a pleasant surprise when it happened.

An enjoyable novel for fans of literary fiction, historical fiction, mystery and Kate Morton.

Booktopia

Monarch of the Glen by Neil Gaiman

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Title: Monarch of the Glen
Author: Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus
Genre: Fiction/Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Headline/Hachette
Published: 8th November 2016
Format: Hardback
Pages: 160
Price: $40.00
Synopsis: We first meet Baldur ‘Shadow’ Moon’s in AMERICAN GODS, where he gets caught up in a war between gods in the USA. In THE MONARCH OF THE GLEN, Shadow’s journey has brought him to the north coast of Scotland, where he finds himself a bouncer at a party.
Shadow Moon has been away from America for nearly two years. His nights are broken with dangerous dreams. Sometimes he almost believes he doesn’t care if he ever returns home. In the Highlands of Scotland, where the sky is pale white and it feels as remote as any place can possibly be, the beautiful and wealthy gather at a grand old house in the glen. And when the strange local doctor offers him work at a party, Shadow is intrigued. He knows there is no good reason for him to be there? So what do they want with him?

~*~
Neil Gaiman revisits the world of American Gods in this short novella, revolving around Shadow and his ongoing journey, battling monsters and gods, and many other aspects of life beyond the confines of what the rest of the world knows. Shadow’s journey has taken him from America to Europe and now, to Scotland, where the job from the mysterious doctor at a strange, remote gathering for many wealthy people, organised by Mr. Alice, and taken to the place my a Mr. Smith. Shadow is unsure of what awaits him, thinking he is there for security or another job. But what awaits him, and the decision he must make, is more terrifying and stranger than he could ever have imagined, even after what he has been through.

The black and white, mostly line illustrations by Daniel Egnéus add to the atmosphere of the story – they represent the characters in a way that isn’t idealistic or perfect – to show that their imperfections on the outside. Whilst the words hint to their inner imperfections and flaws, the secrets they hide and their true intentions, and allow the reader to enjoy the story through the words and visual representations of the characters.

Neil Gaiman’s work covers a wide range of characters and stories, taking the reader into a world that they know but at the same time, is unfamiliar, and uncertain at times – speaking to the fairy tales and myths that have been told and retold for many generations – and reinventing them for a new audience. Having read a few of Neil’s previous novels, I am used to his style and characters. For those who enjoy urban fantasy, fantasy and in a way, magical realism, these books, and indeed Monarch of the Glen, are wonderful reads. Gaiman’s stories do not sugarcoat the reality of the worlds he creates – he shows the good, the bad and the grey, and his characters are complex and the kind that are not predictable, who face challenges and decisions they’re not sure what to do about. Shadow is one of these characters. Another great Neil Gaiman to add to the collection.

The Winter Isles by Antonia Senior

Title: The Winter Isles
Author: Antonia Senior winter-isles
Publisher: Atlantic
Category: Historical Fiction
Pages: 400
Available formats: Print
Publication Date: 18/11/15
Price: $29.99

Synopsis: I am Somerled. The summer warrior. What am I, if not a warrior?

In twelfth-century Scotland, far removed from the courtly manners of the Lowland, the Winter Isles are riven by vicious warfare, plots and battles.

Into this hard, seafaring life is born a boy called Somerled. The son of an ageing chieftain, Somerled must prove his own worth as a warrior. He will rise to lead his men into battle and claim the title of Lord of the Isles – but what must he sacrifice to secure the glory of his name?

The Winter Isles is an astonishingly vivid recreation of the savage dynastic battles of medieval Scotland: an authentic, emotional, powerful read.

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The Winter Isles explores the ancient Celtic and Norse legend of Somerled, and the twelfth century conflicts of Medieval Scotland, plagued by warring kingdoms. Senior combines legend and history to create the narrative of Somerled and his journey from a young boy aboard a ship, sailing to find the lost Gaelic Kingdom, to his ascension as Lord of the Isles, a marriage to a princess and the battles he becomes embroiled in over forty years of his life. The Winter Isles draws the reader into an unknown world where war reigns and Christianity fights to take hold as the dominant faith over the old Norse and Celtic gods and goddesses, and the conflict of the opposing dynasties that populate the area and moment in time.
Somerled’s tale as retold by Senior has its basis in history, with the character of Somerled, a Scottish warrior, journeying across the Celtic and Norse lands, between kingdoms, resulting in a politically advantageous marriage to Ragnhild, battles that weary Somerled and the tensions of the time, is coupled with the imagined life of Somerled prior to his political marriage, a life where pagan elements and Christian elements are always threatening to collide but somehow, Somerled and Eimhear, an invention of the author, mentioned in the notes at the back, make it work until their son is kidnapped and to secure his safety, Somerled, or “Summer Warrior”, is forced into a political marriage, one that is deemed to have more substance than the hand-fasting he shares with Eimhear.
It is the combination of history, real figures and fictional figures and events in a real world setting of Medieval Scotland, and the Norse, Gaelic and Norman warriors searching for a lost kingdom and fighting for control that ties the story together to create an intriguing world for the reader to delve into.
Stories set in a different time and place to what readers live in their day to day lives, whether a different country in our own time, or a different time period or a whole new fantasy world set in an unknown time and space or relative to our own are what makes reading enjoyable. Antonia Senior has managed to combine all these elements in this story. It is the kind of introduction to history that takes one on a journey of discovering more about a place than that person might have previously known and that might encourage an interest in history where it has reluctantly lived before. A great read and one that I recommend to anyone interested in history, Scotland and journeys.

The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth

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Title: The Puzzle Ring

Author: Kate Forsyth

Publisher: Scholastic/Pan Macmillan

Category: Historical Fiction/Children’s Fiction

Published: 1st June 2009

Pages: 409

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: An ancient curse. A ruined castle. A journey back in time.

Hannah Rose was not quite 13 years old when she discovered her family was cursed. . . .

The arrival of a mysterious letter changes Hannah’s life forever. One day she is an ordinary teenage girl. The next day she discovers she is heir to a castle in the Scottish highlands—a castle that was cursed more than four hundred and forty years ago.

The curse has haunted her family for generations, culminating in the disappearance of Hannah’s father the day after she was born. A prophecy tells of a Red Rose who will save a Black Rose, solve the puzzle ring, and break the curse. Red-haired Hannah is determined to be the one.

Yet, to break the curse, she must go back in time to the last tumultuous days of Mary, Queen of Scots . . . a time when witches were burnt and queens were betrayed and the dark forces of wild magic still stalked the land. . . .

 

~*~

If you’re looking for something new to read, then go no further than Kate Forsyth’s 2009 novel, The Puzzle Ring. Set in Scotland, the novel begins in modern times, with the main character, Hannah Rose Brown, discovering the truth about her heritage.

From the opening words about not quite thirteen-year-old Hannah Rose Brown, I was hooked.  The opening line swept me into the action and I soon found myself preoccupied by the book, dreaming about it, eager to get back to it when I was away from it.

The Puzzle Ring has become on of the books I own that I want to revisit and practically re –read as soon as I have finished it for the first time. I felt at home in Scotland, drawn to the ancestral home of my own family. Kate Forsyth created a world that I could feel myself living in. I smelt the snow, heard the sounds of Wintersloe and smelt the sixteenth century smells, found myself playing for Mary, Queen of Scots and helping Hannah in her quest.

This book reaches a wonderful conclusion that I never saw coming and it fitted the story perfectly. I cannot wait to revisit this book.