Book Review: Mariana

Book Review: Mariana by Susanna Kearsley

The newest cover. My favorite.

Julia Beckett is an independent woman of 30, living in London and succeeding professionally as an illustrator of children’s books. Since childhood, Julia has felt a strange calling to a house in the rural English town of Exbury, and when she happens to pass by the house once again as an adult, fate intervenes. The house is for sale, Julia’s recent inheritance means that she has the wherewithal to make a spur-of-the-moment purchase, and voila! Julia is now the owner of the lovely but mysterious Greywethers.

Uprooting her London life, Julia settles in and is immediately welcomed by the locals, especially the friendly pub owner Vivien, the lord of the nearby manor, Geoffrey de Mornay, and Geoff’s best friend Iain. As she adjusts to her new surroundings, Julia begins to see a dark man on a gray horse at the edges of her property, and that’s just the beginning of strange occurrences.

Soon, Julia begins to have momentary lapses in which she slips through time.

It is difficult to describe the sensation of sliding backwards in time, of exchanging one reality for another that is just as real, just as tangible, just as familiar. I should not, perhaps, refer to it as “sliding,” since in actual fact I was thrust — abruptly and without warning — from one time to the next, as though I had walked through some shifting, invisible portal dividing the present from the past.

When she enters this alternate world, it is as a young woman named Mariana, and the time is the mid-17th century.  As Mariana, Julia relives key events from the other woman’s life, and during those spells knows no other reality – she is, in fact, Mariana. When she returns to herself, Julia remembers what she has experienced as Mariana, but cannot understand why she slips into the past or how these episodes are relevant to her own life.

With the help of her brother Tom, Julia comes to believe that she is Mariana reincarnated, destined for some as-yet-undiscovered purpose related to Mariana’s life. As Julia digs deeper, she comes to understand the love and sorrows that Mariana experienced, and must find a way to live in the present when the past holds so much that tempts her.

I’ll just come right out and say that I love the writing in Mariana. Lush and romantic, Susanna Kearsley’s writing captures the small moments and glances that build to deeper connections and passions. Rustic village life is conveyed in all its quaint charm, and yet the 1600s version of the same village is dark and mistrustful, full of superstition, plotting, and deception. As Julia explores the town, I could practically see the gardens and streams come to life, and would have liked nothing more than to wander the country lanes with her and explore the old manor house and its magnificent library.

As I read Mariana, I became enthralled by the mystery of Mariana’s past and how it could possibly intersect with Julia’s present. The alternating timeframes were so engaging that I never wanted either one to end. By the end of the book, I was completely hooked on the central romance and (without giving anything away here) felt keenly Mariana’s joys and sorrows.

My only quibble with the book is that Julia and Tom arrive at an explanation for Julia’s time slips almost immediately, never question their explanation, and indeed are proven correct pretty much off the bat, with no alternate theories or trial and error. I understand that investigating the cause of the timeslips isn’t really the point here, but it felt a bit too neat to me.

Other than that, there isn’t much that I would change about Mariana. The pace is lively, but with enough suspense and dramatic timing to keep me coming back for more. There’s a sense of impending tragedy – something must have happened to cause Mariana to need to come back across the centuries to find resolution and peace. I especially loved the main plot twist that occurs in Mariana – but again, not wanting to enter spoiler territory, I won’t say what the twist is or when it occurs.

Mariana was first published in 1994 and has been reissued several times since. Call me shallow, but what originally drew me to Susanna Kearsley’s books was the newest set of covers. I was hooked as soon as I saw The Winter Sea on a bookstore shelf, had to have it, and have since snapped up several others. Although Mariana has had several covers since its original publication, the current cover, with its sense of sensual, moody introspection, is the one that really captures the feel of the book for me.

Really, how could you not fall in love with these covers?

I’ve read two other Susanna Kearsley books, The Winter Sea and The Rose Garden. Each involves some sort of time displacement or time slippage, each for difference reasons or using different mechanisms. In all three books, the heroine experiences something inexplicable in which she is thrust into another life or another timeline; she must figure out why it happens and what is expected of her. And of course, in each of the three books, true love – a deep, abiding love that knows no boundaries of time – is at the center of the plot. The romances at the heart of the author’s writings are desperate, lovely, dangerous affairs, and the passion is palpable.

What I also appreciate and enjoy in these books is the historical element. Without feeling like a history lesson, these books manage to convey a time and place gone by. They present the drama of the day’s events, politics, and social structures in a way that feels current and vibrant, with special emphasis on the role of women in these times and the choices (or lack of choices) available to them.

Mariana is a fine example of this type of journey to the past, combined with a contemporary woman’s search for identity and meaning, and as such, is both engaging as fiction and emotionally compelling as well.

I highly recommend Mariana to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, love stories, strong female characters… and simply gorgeous English countryside. An appreciation for dashing men on horseback wouldn’t hurt either.

I have another Susanna Kearsley book, The Shadowy Horses, all queued up and ready to go on my e-reader. As soon as I get over the emotional ups and downs of Mariana, I’ll be ready to dive right in.

My top 5 favorite timey-wimey books

It’s September 1st, and you know what that means, right? It’s the return of the Doctor! (And if you’re asking, “Doctor who?”, the answer is — yes!). The BBC’s Doctor Who returns for a much-anticipated 7th season tonight, and Whovians everywhere are dusting off their bowties and sonic screwdrivers in preparation for another fantastic journey through time and space.

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… timey wimey… stuff” – The Doctor

Inspired by the Doctor, step inside my TARDIS (that’s Time and Relative Dimension in Space, for the uninitiated) for a tour of my favorite timey-wimey books — books that deal with time travel, time slips, or just plain old time-related weirdness.

1) The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I was just swept away by this mind-bending journey through a relationship between a woman who is fixed in time and a man who is not. Claire meets Henry when she is six years old; Henry meets Claire when she is 21. Early on, they discuss their temporal relationship in comparison to a Mobius strip, and it’s an apt metaphor. Older Henry visits child Claire; young Henry visits older Claire. In the midst of all the comings and goings, they find true love. At once tragic and beautiful, this book will make your head spin as you try to puzzle out whether the words “before” and “after” have any meaning whatsoever. This was one of the very few books that I began reading a second time immediately upon reaching the end the first time through, just to see how the pieces fit together knowing what was still to come.

2) Kindred by Octavia Butler

As Kindred opens in the mid-1970s, Dana is an African American woman in her 20s, happily married to a white man and living a contented life. She is yanked back through time to the ante-bellum South, where time and again she must intervene to save the life of her ancestor Rufus, son of a slave-owner. Dana’s experiences are shocking, raw, and brutal, and the effect upon her and her marriage is indelible. Kindred is less about time travel than about slavery, power, and freedom. It is a shocking book, and packs a powerful punch. Not to be missed.

3) Replay by Ken Grimwood

Replay is not about time travel, but the timey-wimey weirdness is here just the same. At age 43, unfulfilled and bored, Jeff Winston has a heart attack and dies… but wakes up again in his 18-year-old body, with his whole life ahead of him again, and with all the memories of his previous life. Is this a chance to right old wrongs? to set a new path for himself? to make an impact on the world? Jeff relives his life, but with alterations along the way, all the way through to age 43, when he dies again… and so on, and so on, and so on. Each time around, Jeff comes back to himself just a bit later, and each time around he thinks he’s found the way to get it right — but of course, life isn’t something you can plan for or make turn out just the way you want. Replay is hard to explain, but marvelous to read.

4) Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson

Until a couple of years ago, I actually had no idea this was a book. I fell in love with the lush romance of the Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour movies years ago, and was astonished to find the book at a used book sale. And by Richard Matheson, no less — someone who really knows how to tell a story. Richard is a modern man who falls in love with a woman in a photo from decades earlier, and using the power of his mind, finds a way to travel back in time to be with her. Passionate and intense, this is yet another interesting spin on a journey through time. (For more details, you can see my Goodreads review here).

5) 11/22/63 by Stephen King

I love Stephen King, am fascinated by the Kennedy assassination and all the associated conspiracy theories, and adore reading about time travel. Clearly, this massive novel was right up my alley! Given the opportunity to travel back through time and avert a national tragedy, would you? Should you? 11/22/63 is a combination of time travel, historical fiction, and romance, and it works. As I say in my review, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.

I’m leaving out some other great ones, not because I don’t love them — I do! I really do! — but because time’s a-wasting, and I must move on. So I’ll wrap this up with a list of a few other favorite books full of timey-wimey goodness. Let me know what time-related books you’ve enjoyed!

More time-travel, time-slip, and time oddities:

Outlander (and sequels) by Diana Gabaldon (which I didn’t include in my top 5 despite my mad love for them, just because I’m always raving about these books to the point of sounding like a broken record. Read these books! There, ’nuff said.)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling — the book that introduced my children to the brain-twisting concept of time travel!

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen
The Future of Us by Jay Asher
The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley
Lightning by Dean Koontz
The Sound of Thunder (short story) by Ray Bradbury

Book Review: The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen

Book Review: The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen

(Hardcover edition published September 2011; paperback due out in October 2012)

Maybe you could drive yourself crazy trying to chart backward all the causes and effects, all the ends and means, tracing everything to some original sin that may or may not have actually occurred but that people accepted as true, or true enough. Maybe staring into the eyes of all that history was a dangerous thing to do, as her mother had calmly warned her. Maybe you were supposed to move forward armed with just enough history to help you figure out the present without obsessing over the past. But how much was enough? Where was the gray area between ignorance and obsession?

The Revisionists was not at all what I’d expected, yet I couldn’t put it down.

I have a soft spot for all things time-travel, and the basic synopses I’d read of this book seemed to put it squarely into that genre: Main character Zed works for a post-disaster society at some point in time several centuries from now. In the “Perfect Present”, there is no war, no racial tension, no hate. Zed’s government agency works to keep the perfect present perfect, by sending agents into the past to thwart “hags” — historical agitators — whose mission is to stop disasters (think 9/11, concentration camps, etc) before they can happen, on the assumption that all these calamities were a necessary step in history in order for the perfect present to come to be.

Confusing? You bet.

And strangely, that’s not at all what this book is really about. Much more than anything else, I’d describe The Revisionists as an espionage-thriller set in DC, filled with intrigue, shadowy quasi-governmental intelligence outfits working against one another, multiple layers of pawns and spymasters, and a reality that slips and shifts from chapter to chapter.

This is not a sci-fi book, when you get right down to it. Zed’s mission is the driving narrative, yet we get no information whatsoever about the mechanics of his time travel and only the barest of descriptions of some futuristic technology. Without saying anything that might inadvertently be a spoiler, I will say that the entire time travel premise is not necessarily what it appears to be, depending on how you choose to interpret certain events and passages.

I was fascinated by this book, and it will probably take me some time to mull over all the twists and turns and come to terms with what may or may not have happened. I do recommend The Revisionists, although I worry that its perfect target audience — people who enjoy a good spy thriller — won’t ever discover it if it continues to be described as a time-travel novel.

When worlds collide, part 2

What’s on my mind this week? The two book-ish happenings that really got me thinking in the past couple of days were:

  1. Finished reading Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
  2. Jumped up and down after hearing that Outlander might, just might, be made into a TV series or mini-series.

… which led me to this:

Outlander vs Shadow of Night — compare and contrast!

Teensy disclaimer: I’m not taking this too seriously, and neither should you. But just for fun, I started my own little list of the various ways SON made me think of OL. (Keep up with the acronyms, OK? We’re too busy here to keep typing out the full book titles.) I started meandering down this random path early on in SON, when I began chuckling over Diana’s soul-deep shock over discovering what being a woman in the 16th century really felt like. As a historian professor, she thought she was prepared, but boy, is there a difference between knowing information and living it!

Diana’s experiences made me think immediately of Claire Beauchamp Randall of Outlander, who was rudely thrust back in time and just had to deal with it, no warning, no preparation, no nothing.

With that in mind, here goes — a quick OL/SON primer (minor spoilers, so beware!):

Claire (Outlander)
Diana (Shadow of Night)
Degree MD PhD
Belongs in 1946 2009
Travels back in time About 200 years About 400 years
Anything fishy? Accused of being a witch Actually is a witch
Challenges Learning how to dress appropriately Ditto
Learning a woman’s place Ditto
Being criticized for speaking her mind Ditto
Treated with respect by those she meets? Relevant quote: “There seemed to be some question as whether the lady was or was not a whore.” Relevant quote: “I had no idea there was a brothel in Woodstock that specialized in over-tall women. Most of your whores are more delicate and appealing.”
Love interest Taller than average, remarkably good-looking Scot Taller than average, remarkably good-looking vampire
Lover’s talents Leader of men, warrior, has a gift for languages Leader of men, warrior, has a gift for languages
Lover’s connections Historical connections include Bonnie Prince Charlie, King Louis, Governor Tryon, and many more Historical connections include William Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth, and many more
Royal interest Bedded by Louis XV, King of France Pursued by Rudolf II of Prague, Holy Roman Emperor
Ability to time travel Genetic inheritance Genetic inheritance
Ease of time travel Painful and scary, but it can be done Difficult and requires great concentration, but it can be done
Scary witches? Geillis Duncan, murderous and crazy Satu, Peter Knox, and a host of others, murderous and fanatical
Must stand up to Colum MacKenzie, clan chieftain, a fearsome and exceedingly smart leader Phillipe de Clermont, patriarch, a fearsome and exceedingly smart leader
Endures time displacement in order to be with the love of her life? Anything for Jamie! Anything for Matthew!

There you have it in a nutshell, the trials and tribulations of Claire and Diana, two well-educated modern women who move through time, endure hardships galore and suffer countless fashion outrages, all in the name of love.

What did I miss? Add your thoughts!

PS – I seem to be formatting-challenged today. Don’t know why my cute little table has weird shading, and can’t make it go away. Yikes. Will try to be prettier next time.

Book Review: Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

Shadow of NightShadow of Night is book #2 in Deborah Harkness’s All Soul’s Trilogy, which kicked off last year with bestseller A Discovery of Witches. At the time ADOW was published, I remember scads of reviews referring to it as “Twilight for grown-ups”, which is and isn’t a fair comparison.

True, ADOW has as its focal point a forbidden romance between a witch and a vampire… and we all know that LOVE + VAMPIRE = TWILIGHT, right? Calm down, I’m just kidding. ADOW is much more than a romance, and the intelligence and emotional truth at its core elevate it far above the standard, popular, seemingly endless supply of vampire fiction.

I loved the heck out of ADOW for its combination of smarts (Oxford professors! Secret manuscripts! Alchemy! Mitochondrial DNA!), supernatural beings (the aforementioned witch and vampire, plus their various and assorted family members, clans, secret societies, etc. Oh, and did I mention daemons?), and yes – be still my heart – passionate, forbidden love. Also, yoga, running, and rowing, for those who get hot and bothered by reading about exercise freaks.

ADOW ended with a plot point that left us hanging off the proverbial cliff, and Shadow of Night picks up the narrative mere moments after the conclusion of the first book. Witchy Diana Bishop and gorgeous vampire Matthew Clairmont have just timewalked back to Elizabethan England in the year 1590. Their goal is two-fold: to find a remedial witchcraft teacher for Diana, who never learned to use her talents, and to find the mysterious manuscript before the rest of the supernatural world gets to it.

First, bigger challenges await. Diana must learn to dress in awkward clothing, write with a quill, and speak with an accent that doesn’t scream “hello, I’m a time-traveler!” in order to fit in with the locals. And such locals! 1500-year-old Matthew has always been an important guy, and in the 1590s, he is a spy for Queen Elizabeth, a member of the powerful supernatural ruling body, the Congregation, and a member of the School of Night, a group of influential men which includes Sir Walter Raleigh, playwright Christopher Marlowe, and various other scholars and scientists of the time. A bit of a problem for me: I didn’t know who all of these historical figures actually were, so I had to sidetrack a bit in order to figure it out. Thank you, Wikipedia!

The plot moves from Oxford to London, France, and Prague. There are a ton of new characters introduced, some of whom matter more than others. How thoughtful of the publisher to give us a list of characters at the end – seriously, after a while I really needed it.

This is a dense, long book. At nearly 600 pages, there’s a lot to keep track of. I found it a bit slow-going for the first 75 – 100 pages, with too much time spent on Diana adjusting to life in 1590, and not enough emphasis on her relationship with Matthew. In addition, during the early sections, Diana and Matthew are surrounded by an entirely new cast of characters, and I thought the mood and urgency of the book suffered from the lack of the other people we’d come to care about in book one.

The pace definitely picks up once the couple travels to Sept-Tours in France, where Matthew reconnects with his family and he and Diana take the final steps toward formalizing and cementing their bonds. I was surprised by how moving I found this section. I won’t go into spoilers, but suffice it to say that Matthew’s reunion and reconciliation with one particular family member brought tears to my eyes.

Quibbles (there are always quibbles): Besides the enormous cast and the seemingly endless amount of period detail, there are two main items that bothered me about SON, and they’re significant plot points.

One, I still don’t fully buy the author’s concept of time travel. In these books, when Diana and Matthew step into the past, the 21st century version of Matthew essentially takes the place of the 16th century Matthew… so when they get to 1590, the Matthew who’d been there disappears (much to the consternation of his associates) and the new Matthew steps in, picking up his social life, his work connections, his obligations and his loyalties. When they leave, the old Matthew will presumably reappear and pick up where he left off, but can’t know what the new Matthew did during that time for fear of changing the future. Huh? Yeah, it all works, more or less, but I never really got on board with this presto-change-o business.

Secondly, the whole point of the timewalking was to find a teacher for Diana. They spend about two-thirds of the book searching for a witch to teach Diana how to be a witch (at a time when witch hunts are rampant, so this doesn’t necessarily sound like a smart plan, IMHO). When they finally find a witch mentor, however, I felt a bit short-changed; the story actually spends very little time on her lessons, so it felt to me that Diana made big leaps in her mastery of her powers without us seeing it happen.

Perhaps this makes it sound as though I didn’t care for the book, and that’s simply not the case. Let me make it clear: I loved Shadow of Night! I really couldn’t put it down, stayed up too late at night to read it, and even skipped TV nights so I could finish. (Now that’s devotion!). The author does a marvelous job with the love story, and I found Matthew and Diana’s trajectory through SON both captivating and electrifying. There are so many beautiful moments throughout the book, as well as moments of fear, tragedy, betrayal, and adventure. Ms. Harkness’s love of history shines through, and she clearly had a ball recreating life in Elizabeth’s England, from the clothing to the coins to the “latest” in scientific developments.

SON ends at a key turning point, and once I realized it was approaching, I found myself slowing down as I got nearer to the end of the book, not wanting to face the fact that this installment was done. I eagerly await the third and final book in the trilogy, and just hate not knowing THIS INSTANT how it all turns out. If you loved ADOW, then you simply have to read SON. And if you didn’t read ADOW, what are you waiting for? Read these books now!