Of all the exotic Eastern settings in colonial times selected by Dinah Jefferies for her books, Ceylon in the 1930s is perhaps the most beautiful. Here we meet Louisa Reeve, living in a pleasant house with a handsome husband and her father living nearby. Having grown up on the island, she is happy to cycle round the 300 year old walled town of Galle, talking to the locals or to play with her three beautiful dogs but there is great sadness in her life; her daughter Julia was stillborn, and she has suffered two miscarriages. Husband, Elliot, is frequently away on business or out sailing and as a reader I instantly mistrusted him. Soon tragedy strikes and we learn of Elliot’s treachery. In contrast to the detailed description of the tropical landscape; the colourful hibiscus plants, the perfumed frangipani trees, the aroma of cinnamon bark, the cool waves of the Indian ocean, we also read of Louisa’s struggle to cope with suspicious men demanding money, an unkind mother-in-law and a revelation that causes her to doubt whether Elliot really loved her.
In order to survive, Louisa plans to open an emporium in an old print house and she approaches Leo McNairn, owner of a cinnamon plantation to offer a contract exporting his crop through her spice agency in Colombo. She finds Leo, a strong but rather sad man, unsettling, and she feels sure he knew more about her husband’s past. Circumstances throw them together, but an orphaned boy may separate them.
Many previous fans of Dinah Jefferies’ books seem disappointed by this novel, but I particularly enjoyed it, perhaps because I could identify with the lonely but independent, Louisa and the stories of other characters added interest and context to her tale.
The Sapphire Widow is available to purchase on Amazon UK
My review of The Missing Sister by Dinah Jefferies
On a foggy night in 1914, the ocean liner Empress of Ireland sank en route between Canada and England. The disaster saw a loss of life comparable to the Titanic and the Lusitania, and yet her tragedy has been forgotten.
When genealogist Jefferson Tayte is shown a locket belonging to one of the Empress’s victims, a British admiral’s daughter named Alice Stilwell, he must travel to England to understand the course of events that led to her death.
Tayte is expert in tracking killers across centuries. In The Lost Empress, his unique talents draw him to one of the greatest tragedies in maritime history as he unravels the truth behind Alice’s death amidst a backdrop of pre-WWI espionage.
This is the fourth book in the Jefferson Tayte Genealogical Mystery series but can be enjoyed as a stand-alone story.
Once again I have returned to read about professional genealogist, Jefferson Tate or JT as he likes to be called. Hailing from the States he frequently finds his investigations take him to England, even though he hates flying. He is a very human character, who loves chocolate, has few social skills but is prepared to put himself in danger, in order to solve the mysteries which his clients present him with.
The Lost Empress is a dual time novel, leading up to the tragic sinking of the ocean liner. We join young mother and Admiral’s daughter Alice Sitwell who is driven to engaging in espionage against her country, to protect her husband and young children. The more she tries to extricate herself, the tighter the noose tightens and we wonder whether Jefferson will solve the mystery of her death or disappearance.
Both Alice and JT are at risk of losing their lives but both act bravely if rather foolishly. This is a particularly thrilling episode of this series which I seem to be reading in random order but that has not spoilt my enjoyment due to the clear characterisation. A novel which will entertain those who enjoy family history, thrillers or historical novels.
The Lost Empress is available on Amazon UK
My review of Steve Robinson’s Letters from the Dead
This is the second Guernsey novel I have read so I was pleased to recognise some familiar places and people, but previous knowledge is not needed to read this stand-alone story. Heroine, Tessa is completing her training as a doctor in Exeter and hopes to move into general practice when she is surprised to hear that she has inherited a large house in Guernsey from her Great-Aunt Doris. Returning to the place where she grew up, fills Tess with pleasure but what she should she do with this crumbling old house? Looking up an old friend gives her a contact which could lead to a new job, so Tess considers returning to Guernsey.
In parallel to the contemporary story, we read the diary of Eugénie written in the 1860s. A recently widowed French woman, she is Tess’s ancestor. More tragedy follows when she loses her baby, but she is taken care of by Madame Drouet who is the long-term mistress of Victor Hugo and her life becomes closely linked to the famous couple.
As Tess works out what she wants from life, she meets Jack who supervises the restoration of the house where Eugénie once lived. Both women have to make decisions about their futures, but Tess has more freedom than her ancestor had in Victorian times. It is fascinating to read of Victor Hugo’s long sojourn in Guernsey and his magnetic personality. In contrast, the modern problems encountered by Tess, as a doctor and her growing awareness of her genealogy add great depth to this unusual novel.
The Inheritance is available at Amazon UK
My review of The Betrayal by Anne Allen
Although I read the three books of Philip Pullmans’ “His Dark Materials” with great enjoyment, there is something about the Sally Lockhart mysteries which appealed to me more, and that is mainly Sally herself.
In the first book The Ruby in the Smoke, Sally is a pretty sixteen year old orphan. Her father has taught her military tactics, to ride like a Cossack and shoot straight with a pistol, but he has drowned in suspicious circumstances in the South China Sea, Finding herself alone but determinedly independent in Victorian London she sets out to discover the truth about her father’s death, but this involves the terrifying mystery of a bloodsoaked jewel. Although the story uses the ideas of a Victorian Penny-Dreadful, Sally is a sensible hard-working girl who believes the best of people and treats others kindly. In the following books, Sally matures into a successful business woman. She experiences romance, tragedy and the turbulent politics of the time. She is very much an underrated heroine in an unusual trilogy of young adult books, not for the faint-hearted.
Some other heroines I chose for my A to Z are perhaps more conventional:
Anne of Green Gables
What Katy did
Maia in Journey to the River Sea
In the first chapter of Wind in the Willows, Mole abandons his spring cleaning and wanders down to the riverbank. There, through a small hole in the opposite bank he spots,
“A brown little face, with whiskers. A grave round face, with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice. Small neat ears and thick silky hair.
It was the Water Rat!”
Ratty invites Mole to stay with him, enjoy life on the river and meet his friends, Badger and Toad.
“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
Something about Ratty reminds me of Cleggie from “Last of the Summer Wine.” He is kind, friendly and well adjusted. He has a strong sense of manners and responsibility, so he wants to make sure everyone around him feels comfortable and included. He becomes Mole’s mentor, showing him how to enjoy exploration and new discoveries. He trusts Badger and does his best to guide Toad towards the straight and narrow, but he is usually unsuccessful!
All my A to Z Challenge posts
I first came to the story of Pollyanna when I went to the cinema at the age of 11 to see the film. Unfortunately I forgot my glasses, needed for distance viewing, so sitting in the circle it was like listening to an audio-book! As a result I soon found the book by Eleanor Porter, to fill in the parts I had found difficult to follow, and it was well worthwhile.
‘Most generally there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it’
When orphaned 11-year-old Pollyanna comes to live with Aunt Polly, she just feels lucky to have an aunt at all. She lives by the philosophy of her father, that there is always something to be glad about. Gradually she conveys that optimism and happy disposition to her aunt and the local community. But she is not a sickly sweet child, for she gets into mischief and never stops talking. Often she lacks tact or understanding of her elders and she has to suffer harsh words from others who do not appreciate her attitude. And then everything falls apart when a dreadful accident paralyses Pollyanna. Suddenly it is difficult to “play the glad game” or find the joy in every day. Will her positivity ever return?
It is amazing how many of the characters I love from 20th century children’s books were likeable but precocious children, often orphaned, who charmed those they encountered and made a success of their lives.
“The boy lay in the silence of the great battlefield, gazing at his own hand spread on the ground beside him. The hand moved and he realized, with something like surprise, that he was not dead. His name was Owain and further up the hillside lay his father and brother, both killed by Saxon warriors in that last great battle of Aquae Sulis.”
Dawn Wind is set in 6th century Britain, telling the story of Owain, alone in the world apart from his companion, Dog, with whom he strides across the battle-scarred land. The Saxons, Angles and Jutes have conquered most of Britain and Owain is a descendent of Roman and British soldiers. After the battle near Bath, as the sole survivor, Owain walks to the ruins of Viroconium (Wroxeter) where he meets a street urchin named Regina, the only person left in the city. They learn to trust each other and form a bond. When they leave the city and are later separated, Owain becomes a thrall to a Saxon lord in the swamps near the Isle of Wight, where he spends a number of years. The book brings to life the atmosphere of those towns left by the Romans and taken over by the British to create a haunted townscape and in contrast the busy, productive life of the thriving Saxon homesteads.
Owain is a hero it is easy to relate to, and to get emotionally involved with. He gives away years of his life out of honour, even though his own desire is to find Regina again.
Have you read Dawn Wind or only The more famous book by Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth?