Book Review: The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley

Title: The Vanished Days
Author: Susanna Kearsley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: October 5, 2021
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; hardcover purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In the autumn of 1707, old enemies from the Highlands to the Borders are finding common ground as they join to protest the new Union with England. At the same time, the French are preparing to launch an invasion to bring the young exiled Jacobite king back to Scotland to reclaim his throne, and in Edinburgh the streets are filled with discontent and danger.

Queen Anne’s commissioners, seeking to calm the situation, have begun paying out money sent up from London to settle the losses and wages owed to those Scots who took part in the disastrous Darien expedition eight years earlier–an ill-fated venture that left Scotland all but bankrupt.

When the young widow of a Darien sailor comes forward to collect her husband’s wages, her claim is challenged. One of the men assigned to investigate has only days to decide if she’s honest, or if his own feelings are blinding him to the truth.

The Vanished Days is a prequel and companion novel to The Winter Sea, with action that overlaps some of the action in that book. The Vanished Days goes back in time to the 1680s and introduces the reader to the Moray and Graeme families.

I’ve loved every one of Susanna’s books! She has bedrock research and a butterfly’s delicate touch with characters–sure recipe for historical fiction that sucks you in and won’t let go!–DIANA GABALDON, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Outlander

From international bestselling author Susanna Kearsley comes a historical tale of intrigue and revolution in Scotland, where the exile of King James brought plots, machinations, suspicion and untold bravery to light. An investigation of a young widow’s secrets by a man who’s far from objective, leads to a multi-layered tale of adventure, endurance, romance…and the courage to hope.

Susanna Kearsley is a go-to author for me, but sadly The Vanished Days did not quite live up to my expectations.

The Vanished Days loosely connects to the wonderful book The Winter Sea — the timelines of the two books overlap, and some key players from The Winter Sea either appear in The Vanished Days or get a substantial mention. There’s even a quick appearance by the descendant of characters from another of the author’s books, Mariana (which I also loved).

The Vanished Days is narrated by Adam Williamson, a young sergeant temporarily staying at the home of his former captain. The action is centered in Edinburgh in 1707, when Adam is asked to stand in for his friend in carrying out an official inquiry into a woman claiming to be the widow of a man lost during the ill-fated Scottish colonization attempt at Darien (in Central America).

The woman’s name is Lily, and she claims to have been secretly married to a man named Jamie Graeme, descendent of a prestigious, well-known family with suspected Jacobite ties. Lily produces a marriage certificate, but the witnesses to the document are deceased and there are no friends or family members who would have known about the marriage. As Adam begins to investigate, we learn more about Lily’s history through scenes going back to the 1680s, as Lily shares the sad story of her childhood and beyond.

Woven throughout the story as well are political machinations and highly dangerous scheming related to the Jacobite cause, which all contribute to Lily’s current situation — the unraveling of which proves to be much more complicated and potentially dangerous than seemed likely when the investigation first began.

While there are many episodes and elements that I enjoyed about the story, an overall sense of disconnect and overabundance of details made this a confusing read. I had a hard time keeping the historical elements straight, not to mention the lengthy and intricate descriptions of Edinburgh’s neighborhoods and streets and landmarks.

Clearly, the author has done a tremendous amount of research for this book, and her mastery of the time and place is clear. Unfortunately, the piling on of detail doesn’t necessarily make for engaging reading. I never felt that I had a terrific grasp of the characters’ inner lives, and this became especially problematic toward the end of the book, when certain revelations that should have had bigger impacts just left me shrugging. If I’d been more invested or felt like I had a better sense of these characters’ motivations and connections, I suspect I might have been blown away.

Still, there are set-pieces and elements of the story that are more successful than others. A big section of Lily’s younger years has a Dickensian feel to it, as she falls in with a found family composed of a petty criminal and the orphans he adopts to further his criminal pursuits. I liked a lot about this, but still struggled to feel that the overall book represented a cohesive whole.

I do love Susanna Kearsley’s books — I wonder if part of my disconnect with this one has to do with the timeline of the setting. In pretty much every other book of hers that I’ve read, there’s been a dual timeline, with a contemporary story interwoven with a historical one. In The Vanished Days, there are once again two timelines, but both are historical and within a relatively short span from one another. Perhaps because of this, I didn’t feel as strong a connection to the material, maybe because I lacked a more accessible entry point.

I don’t regret reading The Vanished Days by any means — but by comparison, I’ve re-read many of the author’s earlier books, and I can’t see myself returning to this one.

Book Review: The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser

Title: The Bookshop of Second Chances
Author: Jackie Fraser
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: May 4, 2021
Length: 431 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A woman desperate to turn a new page heads to the Scottish coast and finds herself locked in a battle of wills with an infuriatingly handsome bookseller in this utterly heartwarming debut, perfect for readers of Evvie Drake Starts Over.

Thea Mottram is having a bad month. Her husband of nearly twenty years has just left her for one of her friends, and she is let go from her office job–on Valentine’s Day, of all days. Bewildered and completely lost, Thea doesn’t know what to do. But when she learns that a distant great uncle in Scotland has passed away, leaving her his home and a hefty antique book collection, she decides to leave Sussex for a few weeks. Escaping to a small coastal town where no one knows her seems to be exactly what she needs.

Almost instantly, Thea becomes enamored with the quaint cottage, comforted by its cozy rooms and shaggy, tulip-covered lawn. The locals in nearby Baldochrie are just as warm, quirky, and inviting. The only person she can’t seem to win over is bookshop owner Edward Maltravers, to whom she hopes to sell her uncle’s antique novel collection. His gruff attitude–fueled by an infamous, long-standing feud with his brother, a local lord–tests Thea’s patience. But bickering with Edward proves oddly refreshing and exciting, leading Thea to develop feelings she hasn’t felt in a long time. As she follows a thrilling yet terrifying impulse to stay in Scotland indefinitely, Thea realizes that her new life may quickly become just as complicated as the one she was running from.

When Thea discovers that her husband has been cheating on her with her close friend, her carefully ordered life falls apart. And when said husband and said friend declare their intention to start a life together, Thea moves out of her house, packs her belongings, and has to figure out what’s next.

Answers are provided by the news that a distant relative, a great-uncle she barely knew, has left his Scottish home to her, along with a nice sum of money to go with it. At loose ends, Thea heads to Scotland to see the property and decide what to do with it, intending to spend at most a few weeks assessing the place and making plans to sell it.

She doesn’t count on how lovely the place is, or how charming the small village nearby. Uncle Andrew left behind an impressive book collection, including many rare and valuable editions, so Thea contacts the local bookseller, a grumpy man named Edward, to arrange to sell some of the books. Edward is indeed grumpy, but he’s also quite engaging and very attractive, not to mention being the estranged brother of the lord whose estate borders Thea’s new home. All in all, Thea finds him fascinating, and they develop an easy rapport, only enhanced once she takes on a job working in Edward’s bookstore.

As the months pass, Thea finds herself falling into a comfortable rhythm in her new home, but she’s still not over the betrayal of her marriage and the sense of self-doubt it’s left her with. Still, as she gets to know Edward, she eventually realizes that life may have a few surprises left for her… even the possibility of a new romance.

It’s refreshing to read a book about love between mature adults, and also a nice change to have a lead character be a woman in her mid-40s. Thea is lovely, but she’s experienced and not naive, and feels that the romantic part of her life is over with, now that her husband has left her. She doesn’t expect to find new opportunities or to have a dashing local find her attractive, and she certainly doesn’t expect that this little town in Scotland may turn out to be a place where she’ll find happiness.

The Bookshop of Second Chances is a lovely, engaging read. The dialogue is often quite funny, and Thea herself is a delightfully practical, blunt-speaking, and intelligent character to spend time with. The dynamics between Edward and his brother Charles are fraught, silly, and often humorous, but there are also some real issues there to navigate, and it was interesting to see those play out.

The main romantic storyline between Thea and Edward is well-paced, as she spends a great deal of the book not looking for more than friendship while she heals from the pain of her marriage and learns to trust and be optimistic again.

All in all, this is a sweet, entertaining, and thoughtful take on finding new purpose and new love in middle age. I really enjoyed it, and recommend it heartily!

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Book/Audiobook Review: Clanlands by Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish

Title: Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other
Authors: Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish
Narrator:  Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: November 3, 2020
Print length: 352 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 22 minutes
Genre: Travel/adventure/history/nono-fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From their faithful camper van to boats, kayaks, bicycles, and motorbikes, join stars of Outlander Sam and Graham on a road trip with a difference, as two Scotsmen explore a land of raw beauty, poetry, feuding, music, history, and warfare.

Unlikely friends Sam and Graham begin their journey in the heart of Scotland at Glencoe and travel from there all the way to Inverness and Culloden battlefield, where along the way they experience adventure and a cast of highland characters. In this story of friendship, finding themselves, and whisky, they discover the complexity, rich history and culture of their native country.

Take two actors, put them in a rickety camper van, and turn them loose in the Scottish Highlands. What do you get? Clanlands, the new book by Outlander stars Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish — part road trip memoir, part bromance, part history lesson, and all good fun.

Sam and Graham met thanks to their work on Outlander, and in Clanlands, they set out together to explore their native land, traveling from site to site in search of deeper meaning and connection, with the occasional adventure and crazy stunt thrown in along the way.

Reading or listening to Clanlands, we learn about the history and role of the clans in Scotland, the various wars and rebellions, and how Scotland’s history is still very much a part of the land and its people today.

We’re also treated to Sam and Graham’s ongoing banter, in which they complain, ridicule, and criticize one another (while making it clear how very much they actually do value each other’s friendship.) It’s pretty adorable.

There are also stories shared about the filming of Outlander and how the show has changed their lives, as well as stories from their earlier acting days and the various roles and opportunities that led them to where they are today.

Plus, Sam seems to delight in making Graham as uncomfortable as possible at all times, so besides hair-raising near-misses while driving, there’s also kayaking, bicycling, climbing rocks and rocking boats, a motorcycle sidecar ride that nearly ends in disaster, and so much more.

I’d originally picked up a hard copy of the book, then had to get the audiobook once I realized it was narrated by Sam and Graham. I highly recommend going the audio route! The two narrators put so much of their personalities into their narration, and listening, we’re treated to their bickering and comedic moments in a way that the printed page doesn’t capture nearly as well.

Outlander author Diana Gabaldon wrote the book’s forward, and she reads this on the Clanlands audiobook, so yet another treat for fans.

The book includes pages of terrific photos, as well as maps and various lists and glossaries, but fortunately, these are also available with the audiobook as a downloadable PDF.

I think Clanlands is especially a treat for Outlander lovers — you really do need to know who the two authors are and have a sense of what they’re like to appreciate their chemistry and how funny they are together. Still, there’s a lot of truly interesting information included about Scottish culture, history, and locations, so a non-fan could enjoy much of the book too.

The road trip that Sam and Graham describe in Clanlands was taken while filming the upcoming Starz series Men in Kilts, which I personally cannot wait to see.

If you’re looking for a holiday gift for the rabid Outlander fan in your life who already has ALL of the Outlander books and assorted memorabilia, consider getting them Clanlands. They’ll love you for it.

And if you yourself are an Outlander fan, particularly a fan of the TV series, then treat yourself to the audiobook. For me, it’s been a laugh-inducing, silly, informative, and overall delightful way to spend 10 hours!

Book Review: 500 Miles From You by Jenny Colgan

Title: 500 Miles From You
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: June 9, 2020
Print length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan returns to the beloved Scottish Highland town of Kirrinfief, which readers first met in The Bookshop on the Shore, and adds a dash of London’s bustling urban landscape. 

Lissie, is a nurse in a gritty, hectic London neighborhood. Always terribly competent and good at keeping it all together, she’s been suffering quietly with PTSD after helping to save the victim of a shocking crime. Her supervisor quietly arranges for Lissie to spend a few months doing a much less demanding job in the little town of Kirrinfeif in Scottish Highlands, hoping that the change of scenery will help her heal. Lissie will be swapping places with Cormack, an Army veteran who’s Kirrinfeif’s easygoing nurse/paramedic/all-purpose medical man. Lissie’s never experienced small-town life, and Cormack’s never spent more than a day in a big city, but it seems like a swap that would do them both some good.

In London, the gentle Cormack is a fish out of the water; in Kirrinfief, the dynamic Lissie finds it hard to adjust to the quiet. But these two strangers are now in constant contact, taking over each other’s patients, endlessly emailing about anything and everything. Lissie and Cormack discover a new depth of feeling…for their profession and for each other.

But what will happen when Lissie and Cormack finally meet…?

Jenny Colgan is an absolute favorite of mine, so of course I was thrilled to receive an ARC of her new book, 500 Miles From You. This author’s books always make me smile, and her books set in the Scottish Highlands give me a major case of wanderlust each and every time.

In 500 Miles From You, we start by meeting Lissa, a nurse who specializes in follow-up care, spending her days driving around London from patient to patient to make sure they’re following doctor’s orders, taking their medications, and getting the treatment they need. As the story opens, Lissa witnesses a terrible hit and run that’s a deliberate attack, leaving a 15-year-old boy dying on the street.

Side note: The synopsis above, from Goodreads, refers to Lissie and Cormack. In the book, it’s Lissa and Cormac. Just FYI — I don’t want you to think I’m getting the characters’ names wrong!

Lissa is unable to shake off the horror, and finally, her hospital’s HR team strongly urges her to participate in a professional exchange program. She’ll be sent to a rural area to use her skills in a different environment, and a nurse from that area will come take her place in London to gain experience in urban medicine.

It doesn’t seem like an offer Lissa can refuse, and between her new assignment and her required ongoing therapy sessions, the exhange may be her only opportunity to heal and recover before her PTSD completely derails her career and her life.

Meanwhile, Cormac will leave his beloved town of Kirrinfief in the Scottish Highlands — where literally everyone knows your name — to live in Lissa’s nursing quarters in London and take over her set of patients. The two never meet, but they exchange patient notes, and over time, develop an email and text rapport beyond the professional requirements.

In my opinion. Lissa gets the much better end of the deal! As always, Jenny Colgan has me falling in love all over again with her depiction of life in the Highlands — the peace and quiet, the quaint small town, the local busybodies, the sense of connection. And frankly, while Cormac eventually finds reasons to like London, the descriptions of the noise, the dirt, the unfriendliness, the bustle all make it clear why Cormac yearns for home.

Lissa’s PTSD is portrayed sensitively. As a medical professional, she intellectually understands her reactions, but that doesn’t mean that she can instantly deal with it. Her progress is slow, and we see how her London habits keep her from fitting in or being accepted when she arrives in Kirrinfief. Eventually, of course, she opens up to her surroundings and to the way of life in a small village, and finds more than she could have thought possible.

Cormac, a former army medic, carries around with him the memories of Fallujah that eventually make him seek a civilian career. While he can relate to Lissa’s trauma, his own past still remains mostly undisclosed. I finished the book wishing we’d learned a little more about Cormac’s army experiences.

The back and forth between Cormac and Lissa is quite cute, and the book ends with all sorts of mishaps that turn their intended first in-person meetings into a series of catastrophic missed chances. But yes, there’s a happy ending — how could there not be?

The texts and emails between Lissa and Cormac are funny and sweet, and the story is a nice twist on the “two strangers fall in love without ever meeting” trope. Somehow, though, I was left wanting more. I felt that their connection needed more time to grow, and wasn’t given quite enough room to develop and breathe — and I was left wanting to see more of them together once they finally connected, rather than ending with their meeting.

This is the 3rd of Jenny Colgan’s loosely connected stories set in Kirrinfief. Characters from both The Bookshop on the Corner and The Bookshop on the Shore show up here (and become friends with Lissa). It’s lovely to see them all — I just wish they’d actually had bigger roles to play, since I enjoy those characters so much.

Overall, this is another winning romantic tale from a terrific author, balancing tough situations and emotions with lighter, more joyous moments and memorable characters.

And how could I not love a book where this happens:

He was wearing an open-necked white shirt made of heavy cotton and a pale green-and-gray kilt. […]

“Stop there, ” said Lissa, smiling and taking out her phone camera. “I want a pic. You look like you’re in Outlander.”

500 Miles From You can work as a stand-alone, but I’d recommend starting with The Bookshop on the Corner, which is a wonderful introduction to Kirrinfief and its quirky characters. Either way, don’t miss these lovely stories!

Audiobook Review: The Bookshop on the Shore by Jenny Colgan

Title: The Bookshop on the Shore
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Eilidh Beaton
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: June 13, 2019
Print length: 416 pages
Audio length: 13 hours, 11 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A grand baronial house on Loch Ness, a quirky small-town bookseller, and a single mom looking for a fresh start all come together in this witty and warm-hearted novel by New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan.

Desperate to escape London, single mother Zoe wants to build a new life for herself and her four-year-old son Hari. She can barely afford the crammed studio apartment on a busy street where shouting football fans keep them awake all night, and Hari’s dad, Jaz, a charismatic but perpetually broke DJ, is no help at all. But his sister, Surinder, comes to Zoe’s aid, hooking her up with a job as far away from the urban crush as possible: working at a bookshop on the banks of Loch Ness. And there’s a second job to cover housing: Zoe will be an au pair for three children at a genuine castle in the Scottish Highlands.

But while Scotland is everything Zoe dreamed of — clear skies, brisk fresh air, blessed quiet — everything else is a bit of a mess. The Urquart family castle is grand but crumbling, the children’s mother has abandoned the family, their father is a wreck, and the kids have been kicked ot of school and left to their own devices. Zoe has her work cut out for her and is determined to rise to the challenge, especially when she sees how happily Hari has taken to their new home.

With the help of Nina, the friendly local bookseller, Zoe begins to put down roots in the community. Are books, fresh air, and kindness enough to heal the Urquart family—and her own?

Love, love, love, love, love.

Jenny Colgan’s books have been reliable, sweet escapes for me, and I’ve loved so many of them — but The Bookshop on the Shore just may be my favorite yet!

Zoe is a lovely main character, who starts the book in an awful situation. She’s about to be evicted from her grotty little apartment, she works in a posh nursery that she can’t afford to send her precious boy to, she can’t find help for the fact that Hari seems to be mute by choice, and Hari’s dad is unreliable and offers no support whatsoever.

The opportunity to be an au pair in the Highlands, providing a roof over her head and a small income, and to run a mobile bookselling business during the owner’s maternity leave, is too good to pass up — and frankly, Zoe is completely out of options.

She and Hari pack up and head to the Highlands, where the dark, neglected manor is in disarray and the children are completely wild, snidely referring to Zoe as “Nanny Seven” when she shows up, since she’s likely to be just one more in a string of hopeless caregivers who the bratty kids manage to drive away.

But Zoe is determined and desperate, and simply refuses to fail. She and Hari settle in. Hari is immediately befriended by Patrick, the precocious 5-year-old of the family, although the older children, 9-year-old Mary and 12-year-old Shackleton, are much harder to win over.

Meanwhile, Zoe takes up the bookselling business when the owner Nina is unexpectedly forced into an early bed rest, and combines her love of books with her startlingly good business sense to develop an entirely new clientele — one that Nina might not entirely approve of, but hey, at least Zoe is making money!

The description may make this seem like pretty standard fare, but I promise, this book is something special! The Urquart children are troubled and troublesome, but with good reason, and their behavior isn’t sugar-coated or made cute. Mary especially has some serious issues to contend with, and it’s heartbreaking to see what she experiences.

Zoe does come off a bit like a magical Mary Poppins/Maria from The Sounds of Music combo — swooping in with her good sense and cheery disposition, steeling herself against hurtful comments and making the children eat healthy, go outdoors, clean up, and all sorts of other positive activities, entirely against their will. Still, behind the scenes, we see Zoe’s vulnerability, and this keeps her grounded as a character and keeps her from seeming too super-nanny-ish.

Gradually, the children warm up to Zoe, and her influence lets light and joy back into the lives of this sad family. Naturally, there’s a love story too, and it’s sweet without being saccharine, and feels well developed and well earned.

Zoe’s anxiety over Hari’s well-being feels very real and all too relatable. To her, her boy is perfect, but at the same time, he’s isolated himself from the world in a way that brings him all sorts of negative attention from well-meaning strangers. Seeing the boy becoming close with the adorable Patrick is just one of the pleasures of this novel.

The narration of the audiobook is delightful, keeping the story moving along crisply, giving personality to each of the characters and making them all distinct and vivid. If you can’t tell already, my favorite is little Patrick, whose use of the word “absolutely” in every sentence is just the cutest thing ever.

There’s real heart-ache in this book, and some moments that had me at the edge of my seat, but also a realistic look at the messy business of raising a family, dealing with children who aren’t perfect, and looking for small ways to make things better, even if just a bit at a time.

Just to put this book in context, it’s set in the same world as The Bookshop on the Corner, with some cross-over characters, but I wouldn’t call it a sequel, and it can absolutely (thanks, Patrick!) be read a stand-alone.

Jenny Colgan’s books tend to have certain elements in common — a lonely or sad main character needing a dramatic change, moving to a small, remote community, meeting lots of quirky characters, finding a place for herself, and falling in love. This is all true of The Bookshop on the Shore, but that doesn’t mean that it’s at all formulaic.

I loved the setting, the characters, the investment in the portrayals of the children, and the way Zoe, Hari, and the Urquarts all change one another’s lives for the better.

A bonus is how much all of these characters love to read! In this book as well as The Bookshop on the Corner, the characters talk about books all the time, and listening to the audiobook, I was often tempted to hit the pause button so I could write down the books mentioned. What a treat!

I’ll use Patrick’s favorite word one more time and say that I ABSOLUTELY recommend The Bookshop on the Shore!

Shelf Control #204: The Highland Witch by Susan Fletcher

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Highland Witch (original title: Corrag)
Author: Susan Fletcher
Published: 2010
Length: 368 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The Massacre of Glencoe happened at 5am on 13th February 1692 when thirty-eight members of the Macdonald clan were killed by soldiers who had enjoyed the clan’s hospitality for the previous ten days. Many more died from exposure in the mountains. Fifty miles to the south Corrag is condemned for her involvement in the Massacre. She is imprisoned, accused of witchcraft and murder, and awaits her death. The era of witch-hunts is coming to an end – but Charles Leslie, an Irish propagandist and Jacobite, hears of the Massacre and, keen to publicise it, comes to the tollbooth to question her on the events of that night, and the weeks preceding it. Leslie seeks any information that will condemn the Protestant King William, rumoured to be involved in the massacre, and reinstate the Catholic James. Corrag agrees to talk to him so that the truth may be known about her involvement, and so that she may be less alone, in her final days. As she tells her story, Leslie questions his own beliefs and purpose – and a friendship develops between them that alters both their lives. In Corrag, Susan Fletcher tells us the story of an epic historic event, of the difference a single heart can make – and how deep and lasting relationships that can come from the most unlikely places.

How and when I got it:

I’ve had this book on my shelf for at least five years, and I’m pretty sure I received it from a book group friend during one of our annual book swaps.

Why I want to read it:

Basically, put the word Highland in a title, and throw in the word witch as well… and I’m sold! I’m always on the lookout for good historical fiction set in Scotland, and this one sounds terrific! 

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: Finding Fraser by KC Dyer

 

“Jamie Fraser would be Deeply Gratified at having inspired such a charmingly funny, poignant story—and so am I.”—Diana Gabaldon, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Outlander series

Escape to Scotland with the delightful new novel that readers have fallen in love with—inspired by Diana Gabaldon’s #1 New York Times bestselling Outlander series.
  
     I met Jamie Fraser when I was nineteen years old. He was tall, red-headed, and at our first meeting at least, a virgin. He was, in fact, the perfect man.

     That he was fictional hardly entered into it…

On the cusp of thirty, Emma Sheridan is desperately in need of a change. After a string of failed relationships, she can admit that no man has ever lived up to her idea of perfection: the Scottish fictional star of romantic fantasies the world over—James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.

Her ideal man might be ripped from the pages of a book, but Emma hopes that by making one life-altering decision she might be able to turn fiction into fact. After selling all her worldly possessions, Emma takes off for Scotland with nothing but her burgeoning travel blog to confide in.

But as she scours the country’s rolling green hills and crumbling castles, Emma discovers that in searching for her own Jamie Fraser, she just might find herself.

For any devoted Outlander fan, Finding Fraser is sure to ring true — if only escapist fictional escapades ever really happened in real life.

Emma, at 29, is frustrated by her career (or lack thereof), her love life (or lack thereof), and her prospects in general. Why can’t she ever find a man who even comes close to the perfection of Jamie Fraser? Fed up and in need of a change, Emma sells everything and — against the sensible scolding of her younger but more practical sister — heads off across American towards the plane that will take her to Scotland.

Needless to say, all sorts of mishaps ensue, even before she leaves the country. Emma has a variety of run-ins with Outlander fans of the sane and not-so-sane variety, actually meets Herself (that would be the beloved author of the Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon) but bursts into tears when it’s finally her turn to greet her, has the unpleasant experience of seeing a stripper in a kilt and fake red wig, and meets some die-hard Braveheart fans who are willing to defend their story with knitting needles and other pointy objects.

… the very thought of meeting Herself in the flesh made my hands start to shake. She was the woman who created Jamie Fraser, who built him up from clay — or from ink and paper, at least. She has gone on to beat him, wound him, torture him in every possible way, and still nurture his unending love for Claire over the course of the entire series.

Emma doesn’t have all that much of a plan when she arrives in Scotland, other than using her Outlander paperback as a guide to follow in Claire’s footsteps and, hopefully, meet the kilted Scottish warrior of her dreams. Real life rarely follows careful plans, much less dreams, so Emma’s path is not smooth, and she encounters all sorts of challenges that could easily have sent her running back to the safety of her overbearing sister and a steady (boring) job.

Instead, she decides to stick it out, and finds a way to stay in Scotland, earn enough to pay for room and board, make friends and start to build what feels like home, and yes, fall in love. But is he the man of her dreams, or just a stand-in for what she really wants?

Finding Fraser is engaging and endearing. Of course, Emma’s plans are impractical and unlikely, but she throws herself into them, even when down to her last bit of cash and after having all her belongings stolen. She starts a blog, thinking to chronicle her journey, and develops a cheering squad of followers who encourage her not to give up hope. Readers will identify early on who the true love interest should be, but it takes Emma the entire book to catch up. Meanwhile, she ends up  in a relationship with a guy who is clearly just so, so very wrong — except for the looks and the fact of being Scottish. I wanted to give Emma a good shake every time she starts to realize that maybe Hamish isn’t such a great catch after all… and then talks herself into giving him another (and another and another) chance.

It was super sweet to see her find a home for herself, make friends, and start to feel a part of the town where she rather haphazardly ends up. Her stay is ended abruptly by immigration woes that seem a bit shoe-horned in for the sake of drama, but that’s okay. The real point is Emma’s search for her own perfect Jamie… and her ultimate realization that what she really needed all along was to find her own inner Claire.

What I hadn’t really thought about — beyond tracing the journey in the front of the novel — was Claire’s part in the love story. Claire’s heart was true, but there was never any doubt that the woman had standards. Jamie literally lived through hell and more to meet those standards. Even living with uncertainty and chaos all around her, she knew what she wanted.

Finding Fraser is a delightful summer read, perfect for a chair on the beach or a cozy hammock. It’s light and fluffy, but full of heart and more than a little humor. It’ll definitely hit the sweet spot for Outlander lovers. Wouldn’t we all love to hop a plane and go find our own Jamie?

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The details:

Title: Finding Fraser
Author: KC Dyer
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: January 1, 2015
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Shelf Control #143: Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Secrets of the Sea House
Author: Elisabeth Gifford
Published: 2013
Length: 303 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In 1860, Alexander Ferguson, a newly ordained vicar and amateur evolutionary scientist, takes up his new parish, a poor, isolated patch on the remote Scottish island of Harris. He hopes to uncover the truth behind the legend of the selkies—mermaids or seal people who have been sighted off the north of Scotland for centuries. He has a more personal motive, too; family legend states that Alexander is descended from seal men. As he struggles to be the good pastor he was called to be, his maid Moira faces the terrible eviction of her family by Lord Marstone, whose family owns the island. Their time on the island will irrevocably change the course of both their lives, but the white house on the edge of the dunes keeps its silence long after they are gone.

It will be more than a century before the Sea House reluctantly gives up its secrets. Ruth and Michael buy the grand but dilapidated building and begin to turn it into a home for the family they hope to have. Their dreams are marred by a shocking discovery. The tiny bones of a baby are buried beneath the house; the child’s fragile legs are fused together—a mermaid child. Who buried the bones? And why? To heal her own demons, Ruth feels she must discover the secrets of her new home—but the answers to her questions may lie in her own traumatic past. The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford is a sweeping tale of hope and redemption and a study of how we heal ourselves by discovering our histories.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy several years ago, after hearing recommendations from book group friends.

Why I want to read it:

Okay, a) Scotland! But b) it just sounds like a good story, with a dual timeline, the myth of the selkies, and family secrets. I’ve heard really good things about this author, but haven’t read any of her work. Have you?

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Café by the Sea by Jenny Colgan

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Years ago, Flora fled the quiet Scottish island where she grew up — and she hasn’t looked back. What would she have done on Mure? It’s a place where everyone has known her all her life, where no one will let her forget the past. In bright, bustling London, she can be anonymous, ambitious… and hopelessly in love with her boss.

But when fate brings Flora back to the island, she’s suddenly swept once more into life with her brothers — all strapping, loud, and seemingly incapable of basic housework — and her father. Yet even amid the chaos of their reunion, Flora discovers a passion for cooking — and find herself restoring dusty little pink-fronted shop on the harbour: a café by the sea.

But with the seasons changing, Flora must come to terms with past mistakes — and work out exactly where her future lies…

My Thoughts:

The Café by the Sea is a sweet, fluffy treat of a book — not especially deep or filling, but enjoyable the whole way through. I enjoyed the setting — a beautiful, isolated Scottish island where everyone knows everyone else, and where, sadly, the younger generation doesn’t see much of a future. When Flora arrives back on the island for a work assignment, she instigates changes that will ultimately lead to the rejuvenation of the island, by convincing a billionaire about to open an exclusive resort to hire and source locally.

The work assignment is also the means for Flora to finally get noticed by her boss, an icy playboy lawyer with a tragic past who never allows emotions to seep to the surface. Honestly, the love story didn’t click for me. Flora, a paralegal in a prestigious law firm, has had a hopeless crush on Joel for years, and although it’s not giving away too much to say that the island has a profound effect on him as well, I couldn’t figure out what Flora saw in him in the first place, other than his amazing good looks. Meanwhile, there’s a potential love interest on the island, but that part of the story doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, so it’s pretty clear early on which way things are going.

I loved the parts of the story about Flora reconnecting with her father and brothers, coming to terms with a loss in the family several years earlier, and reconnecting with the people and natural beauty of Mure. However, I was a little unsure about some of Flora’s decision-making regarding her career and her future. When we meet her, she’s working as a paralegal with an eye toward becoming a fully qualified lawyer, but her actual work in law seems to fall by the wayside as she becomes more and more involved in using her family’s history to open up and run an amazing café in the center of town. Was she never really all that interested in becoming a lawyer? It seems that she’s just fallen into this new life, and I would have liked to have her at least think about what it might mean to walk away from her professional plans and change course like this.

Still, this is really a charming book, with a gorgeous setting, interesting, quirky characters and a plot that hits some emotional notes without ever losing its sense of romance and light. When you’re looking for something to lift your spirits, check out The Café by the Sea!

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The details:

Title: The Café by the Sea
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: June 27, 2017
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

Before Verity…there was Julie.

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scottish Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister, Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

In this coming-of-age prequel to Code Name Verity, we meet a much younger Julie — a privileged daughter of an aristocratic Scottish family, home for the summer from her Swiss boarding school. Julie and her siblings are converging on their late grandfather’s estate one last time as the grounds, manor house, and belongings are being either sorted for auction or repurposed into a boys’ school.

At the beginning of the summer, Julie is free-spirited and ready for fun. When Julie arrives earlier than expected (and ahead of her luggage), she grabs an old kilt that belonged to her brother and sets off to explore along the river that runs through their property — where she’s konked on the head and knocked unconcious.

As Julie recovers, she develops a connection with the Traveller family who rescued her, and begins to dig through her foggy memories to figure out who knocked her out, and what’s going on with the ancient and priceless Scottish river pearls that were a beloved part of her grandfather’s treasure trove.

Through Julie’s eyes, we get to know the family of Scottish Travellers and see the prejudice and cruelty they’re so casually subjected to, even by people Julie otherwise had respected. Likewise, through Julie, we meet a reclusive, disfigured librarian and gain an understanding of what it truly means to look beyond the surface.

The adventure and mystery of the story are quite entertaining, and there’s nothing here that would earn anything more scandalous than a PG rating. That said, Julie does explore her sexuality through a series of important kisses, and discovers that her orientation may be more complicated than she’d been prepared for. At the same time, we see the great love and loyalty that Julie is capable of, whether directed toward her immediate family, long-time acquaintances, or fast friends.

This is important to note, because of course this is Julie from Code Name Verity, and while The Pearl Thief is set earlier than that stellar book, it’s an interesting look at the young woman Julie was before her life was changed forever by World War II. In The Pearl Thief, Julie is still a half-formed woman, but she’s already well on her way toward establishing her outsized bravery, talent for mimicry and pretending to be someone else, keen mind that zooms in on details, and of course, the absolute devotion to her friends.

It’s not essential to have read Code Name Verity before reading The Pearl Thief, but I think it does add a great deal of meaning. Without the context of CNV, The Pearl  Thief is an interesting and entertaining adventure story, with a beautiful setting and a very neat interweaving of Scottish history and folklore within the more contemporary mystery plot. But having read CNV, The Pearl Thief is all above the above, plus.

It’s a beautiful look into the life of a young woman who we know will go on to be remarkable. For that reason, while The Pearl Thief itself isn’t a highly emotional story, reading it manages to be a moving experience. Here is Julie —  Queenie — in her early days, and it’s easy to see the roots of who she will one day be.

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The details:

Title: The Pearl Thief
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: May 2, 2017
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

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