Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Carrie Goes Off The Map, by Phillipa Ashley

With a Phillipa Ashley novel, you know just what you're getting before you open the book to the first page. There are fascinating locales, endearing protagonists, quirky secondary characters, an amazing love story and a gloriously happy ending. Carrie Goes Off The Map follows this trail perfectly.

Carrie Brownhill and Huw Brigstocke have been together for ten years. Their lives are thoroughly interwoven at Huw's farm, where Carrie works (when she's not doing amateur theater) and where the two of them live. None of this prevents Huw from breaking off their engagement just two weeks before the scheduled wedding festivities. Carrie is left with a broken heart, no home and no job. When she hears (in a rather atypical way) four months later, that Huw is marrying someone else, she tries to show her indignation up close and personal. She's stopped on the church steps by Dr. Matt Landor, their friend from University who is home on leave from his stint as a charity doctor in Tuman.  Embarrassed by the emotional state she's been driven to, Carrie resolves to get over Huw once and for all and get on with her life. She and her friend Rowena plan a trip to the Continent to see a bit of the world before moving on to the next part of their lives. And Dolly, the so-named VW camper who plays a big and beloved part in the novel, is their vehicle of choice. When a last minute acting job prevents Rowena from going with Carrie, a substitution is made, and Matt takes her place.

The book really comes into its own as Matt and Carrie head, not for the Continent as Carrie had hoped,   but to Cornwall. As the destinations come and go, Matt and Carrie get closer, almost without realizing it. There's this slow dawning of understanding between the two that deepens as the miles pass. For Carrie, there's "something" about Matt. And for Matt, there's that same "something" about Carrie. And when they finally do realize that what they really want is each other, it's Matt, the serial commitment-phobe, who wants something more permanent. And Carrie, scarred from her experience with Huw and desperate not to lose her heart without an impossible guarantee, steps away.  Matt returns to Tuman, their relationship now reduced to email and Facebook posts.

It's at this point that I am so glad that Ms. Ashley doesn't get her inspiration from Nicholas Sparks, because if that were the case, this story would not have that hoped-for happy ending. There are some tense moments when we wonder if Carrie was not too hasty in sending the good doctor away the year before.  But Ms. Ashley doesn't leave us hanging in suspense too long, thankfully, and everything comes right in the end for a girl who had nothing left to her in the beginning.

Carrie Goes Off The Map is published by Sourcebooks, due out December 1, 2011. I'd love to see  this one into a made for TV movie. Any plans  for that, Phillipa?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Rose Garden, by Susanna Kearsley

I've always used Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series as the yardstick with which to measure any book containing even a whiff of time travel. Up until Susanna Kearsley's novel,  A Winter Sea (reviewed here  in May, 2011) any and all have fallen short. With The Rose Garden, Ms. Kearsley's newest effort, I think even Ms. Gabaldon has met her match. The Rose Garden is a sumptuous love story, one which encompasses three centuries and will warm the coldest of the coming winter nights. I am not being flowery or overdramatic here. I mean it. It is that good. The writing is so descriptive and the characters so real, I could envision every paragraph of every page as if I were a part of the story too. That to me is the mark of a truly great book.

Eva Ellen Ward has recently lost her older sister Katrina, a celebrated movie actress, to an unnamed disease. Katrina's husband entrusts Eva to take his wife's ashes and spread them "where she was happiest." Eva, who worked public relations for her sister, knows just where that place is, and travels from Los Angeles to Cornwall and specifically to Trelowarth, the house and rose farm where the two girls spent many happy summers as guests of their late "Uncle"George and Claire Hallett, friends of their father's. Twenty years after she last stepped foot in the house she's welcomed back by Claire, as well as George's children Mark (Katrina's first love), and Susan, Eva's former playmate. When she starts to experience what she thinks are hallucinogenic episodes, she chalks it up to sleeping pills and grief over losing her sister. When the episodes become frighteningly real, Eva has to accept the fact that she is indeed straddling a time line that takes her in and out of the Trelowarth of 1715. She meets the then owners of the house, brothers Daniel and Jack Butler,  and their loyal friend Fergal. She is also a witness to the sowing of the seeds of the first Jacobite uprising, the plot to bring King James from France to assume his place on the British throne. What she doesn't anticipate are her feelings for Daniel Butler, who knows exactly what she is and not only accepts it, but returns those same feelings, seemingly tenfold. It is at this point in the novel where Ms. Kearsley infuses Daniel with a romanticism not often found in male protagonists, and allows Daniel to sum up their love with these words, "whatever time we have, will be time enough." Prosaic words for a man who falls in love with a time traveler with no control of her appearances and disappearances, except when she's away from Trelowarth itself.

While the notion of time travel can be a hard sell in a story, Ms. Kearsley makes Eva's experience entirely believable.  It fits so well and flows so naturally here, that this reader did not question it as far-fetched fantasy. I actually caught myself thinking that anything is possible, and who's to say that something like this could not in fact, actually happen? I would make a wager that this reaction is not uncommon when reading this novel. And that's certainly a tribute to Ms. Kearsley's story telling abilities.

Without getting into too much more detail because this is a story best read and savored (and believe me,  you don't want me to give this part away), there is one surprise toward the end of the book that will leave you so enthralled, you'll read it over and over, just to help you work out all the brilliant clues left that you may have missed beforehand. These clues are scattered like breadcrumbs on a trail helping you find your way back from whence you came. It's masterfully done and adds an additional dimension to what was already a brilliant story.

It seems I've gotten into the habit of saying this for this author's work; The Rose Garden, by Susanna Kearsley is a must read. And as they say, there's no time like the present....

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Highland Storms, by Christina Courtenay

In the follow up to her novel Trade Winds, Christina Courtenay continues the story of the Kinross family, this time moving her characters from Sweden to their native homeland, the Scottish Highlands. Brice Kinross, son of Killian and Jess, the protagonists in Trade Winds, is bequeathed Rosyth House, the Kinross ancestral home, by his father as a consequence of the Jacobite uprising in 1745.  Living in Sweden with his family, Brice is betrayed in love by his brother and his brother's new wife, the girl he himself intended to marry. When his father suspects that things are not all what they seem at Rosyth, he encourages Brice to go to Scotland, take up the reins of his inheritance and put things to rights. With an eye toward a new beginning, he leaves Sweden and heads "home."

Marsaili Buchanan, Brice's deceased uncle's illegitimate daughter (more simply, his second cousin) acts as housekeeper at Rosyth. Instilled there by Brice's aunt and looked after by her half-sisters, Marsaili continuously butts heads with the estate manager, Colin Seton. He wants Marsaili for a wife, but she refuses him repeatedly. Seton is not what he appears to be, and only his son, Iain knows exactly what he's up to. However, Iain's loyalties are tested repeatedly as he loves Marsaili's half sister. When Brice shows up at Rosyth House and declares himself Laird, he begins to slowly win over his tenants by deed as well as character. At the same time, he makes some very powerful enemies. Faced with the ultimate threat to his plan, Seton begins to plot revenge and this revenge is what keeps the book moving through the final few pages.

On a personal level, Brice must overcome his reluctance to trust in love when he finds himself attracted to his beautiful cousin.  For her part, Marsaili has to make sure Brice's intentions are honorable before she reciprocates those feelings,  as she has a fear of becoming like her mother, a wanton who finally settled into marriage only to allow her husband to physically abuse her. But before this can happen, fate intervenes and puts them both into abject danger.

Set against the backdrop of the aftermath of Culloden and the dismantling of the clan system in the Highlands, Highland Storms evokes all the hardship and desolation faced and felt by the once proud inhabitants of that part of Scotland. Ms. Courtenay writes an engaging and fast moving story. The only problem I have with it is that a good deal of the dialogue and some of the action (for example, the characters, including the women, seem to like to punch each other in the arms a good deal to signify good humor) seemed a bit too contemporary for a novel set in the mid 18th century. It was a bit jarring and somewhat difficult to get past in spots, but I tried my best to put that aside, and once I did, it was easy to get lost in Brice and Marsaili's love story.  Just out now from Choc Lit publishers, Highland Storms is a fast moving, engaging, love trumps all tale definitely worth a read.