First Chapter: The Secret Keeper

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My choice this week is: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, a book from my TBR Pile Challenge 2015.

It begins:

Rural England, a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, a summer’s day at the start of the nineteen sixties. The house is unassuming: half-timbered with white paint peeling gently on the western side and clematis scrambling up the plaster. The chimney pots are steaming and you know, just by looking, that there’s something on the stove top beneath. It’s something the way the vegetable patch has been laid out, just so, at the back of the house; the proud gleam of the leadlight windows; the careful patching of the roofing tiles.

A rustic fence hems the house and a wooden gate sparates the tame garden from the meadows on either side, the copse beyond. Through the knotted trees a stream trickles lightly over stones, flitting between sunlight and shadow as it has done for centuries; but it can’t be heard from here. It’s too far away. The house is quite alone, sitting at the end of a long dusty driveway, invisible from the country lane whose name it shares.

I’m immediately attracted to this book from these two opening paragraphs, setting the scene. I can easily paint a picture of it in my mind – I can see it! You know that in such an idyllic setting something is about to happen to upset everything; at least that is what I am anticipating  and I know from the title that there is at least one secret someone is keeping .

I also know from the description on the back cover that this is a book that switches from the 1930s, to the 1960s and the present day, which often works well for me, and that there are not only mysteries and secrets but also murder and enduring love.

Will I like it? LibraryThing thinks I probably will like The Secret Keeper (prediction confidence: very high) – we’ll see.

The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins

I can imagine how intriguing Wilkie Collins’ novel The Dead Secret must have been when it was first serialised in weekly episodes in Household Words in 1857, every episode ending leaving the reader eager to know what happens next. It’s a sensation novel* (see my note below) , with many twists and turns, giving hints to the secret (which I did guess fairly early in the book) gradually and surely building up the suspense and with a final twist at the end (which I hadn’t forseen).  I’m reading Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography and this is what he had to say about his friend, Wilkie Collins:

 When I sit down to write a novel I do not all know, and I do not very much care, how it is to end. Wilkie Collins seems so to construct his that he not only, before writing, plans everything on, down to the minutest detail, from the beginning to the end; but then plots it all back again, to see that there is no piece of necessary dove-tailing, which does not dove-tail with absolutely accuracy. The construction is most minute and most wonderful.

And the plotting is like this in The Dead Secret – detailed and dove-tailed right from the powerful beginning at Porthgenna Tower in Cornwall in the 1820s, at the bedside of a dying woman, Mrs Treverton as she commands her maid, Sarah Leeson, to give her husband a letter confessing a great secret, to its end when all is revealed.

I think that to the modern reader the impact of this book is not the revelation of the secret but the manner of its style of delivery – the initial questions about the secret, what is in the letter, why has Sarah’s hair turned prematurely white, why she visits an an old grave set apart from others in the graveyard, why she talks to herself and why she disappears from Cornwall soon afterwards, having hidden the letter.

Fifteen years later, Rosamund, Mrs Treverton’s daughter returns to Porthgenna Tower to live in her old home. By an accident of circumstances, before Rosamund and her husband reach Cornwall, she gives birth a month earlier than expected and Sarah under an assumed name, is appointed to nurse Rosamund and the baby. Overcome by emotion Sarah cannot stop herself from warning Rosamund not to go into the Myrtle Room, which of course arouses Rosamund’s curiosity.

Trollope, however, says he ‘can never lose the taste of the construction’, feeling that Collins ‘books are ‘all plot’. I think this is a harsh judgement. In The Dead Secret, I think that on the whole the characters do come across as real people – I particularly like Rosamund and Sarah’s Uncle Joseph, both are sympathetically drawn – and there are other characters that add colour and interest. The settings and details of Victorian life are clearly described.  It also examines several social and moral issues of period, such as the role of women and respectability.

I don’t think The Dead Secret is in quite the same league as The Moonstone or The Woman in White, but it has all the elements of a good mystery story, drawing out the secret in tense anticipation of its revelation and making me as eager as Rosamund to know the secret and then almost as paranoid as Sarah that it should remain a secret!

*Sensation Novels*

I wrote about sensation novels,  in an earlier post and have reproduced the information here for ease of reference. It is a novel  with Gothic elements  ‘“ murder, mystery, horror and suspense ‘“ within a domestic setting. They have complicated plots, are set in modern times, and are reliant on coincidences, with plots hinging on murder, madness and bigamy. They exploited the fear that respectable Victorian families had of hidden, dark secrets and explored the woman’s role in the family. There is a pre-occupation with the law ‘“ wills, inheritance, divorce and women’s rights over property and child custody. They are emotional dramas about obsessive and disturbed mental states, with villains hiding behind respectable fronts, and bold assertive women, as well as passive, powerless and compliant women.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Challenge 2015, My Kind of Mystery Challenge, Victorian Bingo Challenge 2015 

She Never Came Home by Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

She Never Came Home is a perfect little ghost story for Halloween. Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen spins a suspenseful story of Alice and her husband Peter and their little dog, Foxy as they move into an old farmhouse deep in the Danish countryside. Just why is Foxy nervous about the cupboard under the sink, what is in the bedrooms upstairs that are excluded from their tenancy agreement, and why has the house been empty for over thirty years?

Both Peter and Alice are out of work, but Peter still has to work out his notice in Germany and leaves Alice alone in the house… Alice slowly discovers the horrible truth.

I really liked this short story, with its chilling atmosphere and shocking twist at the end. In just a few pages Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen has written such a compelling and entertaining tale.

This is my last entry in this year’s R.I.P. challenge and another one for the My Kind of Mystery challenge.

Cauldstane by Linda Gillard

Linda Gillard describes her book, Cauldstane  as ‘a gothic novel in the romantic suspense tradition of Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart & Victoria Holt.‘ It is a ghost story, set in a Scottish tower house in the Highlands:

Cauldstane stood, heroic, long-suffering, defying all that the centuries had thrown at it. (Wet rot and dry rot have proved more damaging to many a castle than the depredations of enemy artillery). I saw an ivy-clad tower, much taller than it was wide, with more windows than I could easily count, the whole topped by conical-roofed turrets and looking, from a distance, like a toy. (page 6)

The narrator is Jenny Ryan who is employed by Sholto MacNab, a retired adventurer and Laird of the castle, to ghost write his memoirs. Cauldstane, a beautiful castle is fast falling into disrepair and the MacNabs are struggling to maintain or even keep it.

When he employs Jenny Sholto jokes that every castle should have its ghost. Cauldstane not only has a ghost, there is also the MacNab curse, which affects the women the McNabs marry, with three deaths (two accidents and a suicide) attributed to the curse, and the legend of the Cauldstane claymore, supposed to possess supernatural powers to protect the MacNabs from evil.

Jenny immediately falls in love with the castle, but as she settles in a few things begin to disturb her – her notes on her laptop disappear. As she learns more about the MacNabs and their history, family secrets begin to surface. But what is the truth behind these stories? It seems to hinge on Meredith, Sholto’s second wife who was killed in a horrific car crash.

Cauldstane is peopled by well drawn colourful characters, a beautifully described atmospheric setting and a wealth of story-telling, recreating the past seamlessly interwoven with the present. Jenny not only falls in love with the castle, but also with Sholto’s heir, his son Alec and as she does so more strange events occur and it becomes obvious that there is a malign presence in the castle that doesn’t want her there. And it makes its presence known in a modern way – through Jenny’s laptop. No ghostly visions or  spooky voices, but a thoroughly evil presence capable of writing on the laptop as well as moving objects and putting Jenny’s life in danger, along with the music that apparently only Jenny can hear.

As well as being a gripping tale Cauldstane is also about fear. The epigraph from The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914) sets the tone: ‘Ghost: the outward and visible sign of an inward fear‘.  The MacNabs are not the only ones with things to fear in their past, for Jenny too has a troubled past and both have to learn how to overcome their fears. Cauldstane is also about loss and revenge, about good versus evil and the power of love.

Linda Gillard lives in the Scottish Highlands. She has written seven novels. I enjoyed this one very much but my favourite of hers is still Star Gazing. For more information about Linda Gillard and her books see her website, Linda Gillard – Author.

Reading challenges: Read Scotland 2014, My Kind of Mystery and R.I.P. IX.

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Cauldstane

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My choice this week is Cauldstane by Linda Gillard. It begins:

Sometimes I think I can still hear – very faintly – the strains of a harpsichord. Impossible, of course. There’s been no harpsichord at Cauldstane for over a year now. Meredith’s has never been replaced. Never will be replaced.

As the cover shows Cauldstane is set in a castle – a Scottish castle, a remote and decaying 16th century castle, the family home of the MacNabs. Ghostwriter Jenny Ryan is commissioned to write the memoirs of the current Laird, Sholto MacNab. There are secrets, sins to be revealed – and an ancient curse.

If you want to know more about Linda Gillard’s books here is the link to her website.

What's In A Name 7: Completed

Whats in a name 7Hosted by  by Charlie at The Worm Hole this challenge runs from January to December 2014. During this time you choose a book to read from six categories.

I’ve now completed the challenge and these are the books I read:

  • A reference to time €“ The Time Machine by H G Wells, first published in 1895, is a work of imagination and an early example of science fiction, but it is also a commentary on late 19th century society and a vehicle for H G Well’s views on socialism and industrialisation.

  • A position of royalty €“ The King’s Evil by Edward Marston. This is historical crime fiction set in London in September 1666, just as the Great Fire of London has begun, eventually devastating a large part of the old medieval City of London

  • number written in letters – Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie, a Poirot mystery
    first published in 1943. Caroline Crale was convicted of the murder of her husband, Amyas and died in prison. Sixteen years later, her daughter, a child of five at the time of the murder, asks Poirot to clear her mother’s name, convinced that she was innocent.
  • forename or names  Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton  a beautifully told tale €“ a tragedy, signalled right from the beginning of the book, when the unnamed narrator first saw Ethan Frome and was told he had been disfigured and crippled in a €˜smash up’, twenty four years earlier. Ethan Frome
  • type or element of weather – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell covers a time period from the 19th century to a post apocalyptic future. It’s not a book to read quickly; it requires patience, but on the whole I enjoyed it. I liked the change in style, suited to each time period, moving between straight narrative and letters and journal entries, encompassing historical fiction, thriller and sci-fi.

  • A book with a school subject in the title €“ The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier  fantasy fiction set some time in the future, about a place between heaven and earth, and the people who end up there after they’ve died and what happens to them. 

My favourite of these books is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

Thanks to Charlie for an interesting challenge that helped me reduce my to-be-read piles.

The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis

When I saw The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis in the mobile library I thought I’d seen reviews of her books on other blogs, so I borrowed it. It is the eighteenth Wesley Peterson Mystery, but I think it reads well without knowing the background to the main characters. Although I suppose if I went back in the series I’d find that I know things that maybe I shouldn’t.

Summary:

It’s the Palkin Festival in Tradmouth, a town in Devon, when the body of a strangled women is discovered floating out to sea in a dinghy. A year earlier Jenny Bercival had disappeared from the festival and her mother returns to look for her bringing with her anonymous letters claiming she is still alive. DI Wesley Peterson and his boss DCI Gerry Heffernan are investigating the two cases. Are they connected and is there a link to a fantasy website called ‘Shipworld’ which features the 14th century mayor and privateer of Tradmouth, Palkin as a supernatural hero with a sinister, faceless nemesis called the ‘Shroud Maker’?

 When Wesley’s friend, archaeologist Neil Watson finds a skeleton on the site of Palkin’s warehouse, the question is whether an ancient crime has been uncovered, or is it Jenny’s body?

My view:

I liked the way the historical mystery intertwines with the modern one, through the archaelogical evidence, and the extracts from a 19th century biography of John Palkin written by his descendant, Josiah Palkin-Wright and letters from Josiah’s wife to her sister, worried about her marriage and that her sister does not reply. Kate Ellis’s style of writing is deceptively simple, so much so that the locations and characters came to life in my mind, whether it was Tradmouth in the past or the present.

There is plenty of mystery in this novel. I really had to concentrate to keep all the characters, red-herrings, twists and turns, and sub-plots in my mind. I thought I’d followed it as I read it, but now I’m not sure that I can give a clear account of what happened and why. However, as I do like complex mysteries I think I’ll have to look out for the first books in the Wesley Peterson series.

A note on the title:

From the title I thought that the ‘Shroud Maker’ would be a person who makes shrouds ie cloths used to wrap a body for burial, but that is not so in this book. Instead the name of ‘Shroud Maker’ is taken from a rope maker, shrouds being the ropes that support a ship’s masts. He or she is a mysterious figure, who in the Shipworld website appears as a faceless monster, wearing what looks like a white ski mask, a malevolent dark force.

The Author’s Note:

It didn’t take me long reading this book to realise that ‘Tradmouth’ is an inversion of the name of Dartmouth in Devon and Kate Ellis’s note at the end of the book clarifies that. She refers to Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales which features a character called the Shipman, a seaman from ‘Dertemouth’, who like her own invented character, was little better than a pirate. She writes that during the 19th century people were fascinated with the medieval period, perhaps as a reaction against industrialisation and her fictional writings of Josiah Palkin-Wright reflected that interest. And coming up to the present day she reflects that fantasy fiction is as popular today as it ever was, with the influence of J R R Tolkien’s works and fantasy fiction websites.

Reading Challenges: R.I.P. Challenge, the My Kind of Mystery Challenge, and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.