Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Highland Spirits by Amanda Scott


Publication Date: October 1, 1999

Length: 397 pages

Amanda Scott is an interesting author for me in that I can't seem to decide how to classify her books. Are they romance? Historical fiction? Mysteries? Compared to classics or epic sagas they can come across as simplistic, contrived, and predictable. I have read five of her books now and every time I start one I think to myself, "this is a romance book Shellie, you don't read romances!" Then before I know it I'm sucked in and enjoying myself immensely! I definitely do not like the romance genre if that's all the book is about. And some of Scott's covers do her a disservice as they suggest that this is the entirety of the book. You know, the covers with steamy Highlanders gazing out at you with smoldering eyes. But they are so much more. I feel a need to review some of her books in order to appeal to readers like myself who do not care much for typical romances but love historical fiction. It would be a mistake to skip these books as they are great for a light read while learning some history. 

This is Book 4 of a four part set called the Highland Series. They build upon one another with the characters' lives intertwining but you can read them on their own as well. I personally think reading them in order is more enjoyable as I wasn't at all confused about how each person related to the other. In this story we revisit Penelope (or Pinkie as she is called) and her brother Chuff. They were orphans who previously were rescued by Black Duncan Campbell, a prosperous Highlander. The year is 1765 and Jacobite sentiment still runs deep in the area. The Campbells are mistrusted due to past grievances but Pinkie and Chuff are just happy to have a family nearby. As the story begins we witness Pinkie watching her "ghost" or, what she thinks is a ghost, in the woods of a Highlander and his dog. They vanish before she is sure but this isn't the first time she has seen them. Of course this is the "mystery" of the story that will be resolved later. 

Meanwhile, Michael Kintyre, the Earl of Mingary is having ideas of his own about Chuff and the Campbells.  He'd like his sister Bridget to marry Chuff in order to offset a debt he owes. When all parties decide to travel to London for various personal reasons, we see an attraction grow between Michael and Pinkie. Michael is not keen on marrying her however due to his own aversion to her bloodline and lack of status. We are treated to London life: parties, balls, and the opera and the machinations of everyone as they try to impress high society. 

Over all this gaiety and socializing lies the cloud of Sir Renfrew Campbell, a Scottish nobleman who would like to marry Michael's sister, Bridget in order to gain a foothold on the Mingary lands which he intends to use for his various businesses needing excess sources of timber. In his desire to possess her for himself he kidnaps her and the chase is on to find her and bring Sir Renfrew to justice. We meet several characters from the previous highland novels, Maggie and her husband the Earl of Rothwell and Mary, Black Duncan's wife. It is fun to revisit them and have them weaved into the story.

I enjoyed Highland Spirits and all the Highland Series books. With each one I learned new, interesting tidbits about Scottish life after the Rising and the description of the countryside and manor houses were vivid. Scott does a great job of using authentic dialogue without overdoing it to the point of being unreadable. I appreciate the way the romance is subtle and not the main focus of the book but rather it complements a solid storyline. 

Are these books Jane Austen or Charles Dickens? No and that's okay. I can sometimes be a bit of a snob about reading "literature" and then I have to remember that it's okay to just chill out with a glass of wine and a book that doesn't require a dictionary and weeks of my time. I think Scott works hard on her research and even though I can usually predict the ending well before it comes she has a unique way of keeping you reading because it's just a lot of fun. I am glad I discovered her books and when I need to just escape after an especially trying week they are the perfect romp!

Friday, May 6, 2022

The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Kay Penman


Publication Date: March 3, 2020

Length: 688 pages

This book will always be special to me for two reasons. First, it is Sharon Penman's last novel before her death last year in January 2021. And second, it introduced me to a period of history I knew nothing about. I'd never even heard the term, Outremer, or "the land beyond the sea" until I read this book. We lost a gifted historical novelist with the passing of Penman and I'm so glad she chose to write about this unique period in time. I've searched in vain for another similar book to continue reading about the topic and just haven't found one. I'll have to settle for straight history books and that's okay but this book pulled me into the characters and their feelings in a way no non-fiction book can match. That was Penman's speciality.

In the late 11th century the people of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem from the Saracens and the Kingdom of Jerusalem was born. In this world of many competing cultures and faiths the throne of the Kingdom and its outlying principalities was always undergoing internal strife due to the different factions and families that wanted to rule. This is the basis for this novel and it includes such an array of colorful characters that I feel each could have their own book. 

The story focuses initially on the life and rule of Baldwin IV. A mere child of fourteen when he takes the throne, he is also dealing with the terrible disease of leprosy. His mother Agnes de Courtenay is always scheming behind the scenes to make sure her children are given their place of importance over their stepmother, Maria and her children. Baldwin suffers with his disease, balancing family squabbles, and facing down the Kingdom's greatest threat: the army of the dynamic Muslim leader, Saladin. He is supported and beloved by his tutor, William of Tyre and Penman does a wonderful job of drawing on his writings from his book written during the period, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea. We see the relationship between the two as an affectionate father/son interaction.

Balian d' Ibelin, a prominent nobleman, is the other focus of the book as he is intent on supporting Baldwin and keeping the kingdom stable. His marriage to Maria Comnena, Baldwin's stepmother increases hostilities with the de Courtenay faction including Baldwin's mother and Uncle, Joscelin. Much of the novel we see the d'Ibelin faction competing with the de Courtenays in their quest to control the politics of the day. 

Saladin and his brother Al-Adil are only too happy to attempt to use this strife to their advantage. The Muslim leaders see the weakened ties of the Franks and this allows an opening for the Saracens to gain a foothold through attacks which ultimately lead to the downfall of Jerusalem. Through her recreation of their interactions with one another, Penman gives us a glimpse of the relationship between Saladin, Al-Adil, and Balian d'Ibelin. She lets us see the human side of the Saracen leaders and while no doubt brutality is the order of the day, it is clear that neither side is all good or all bad. 

This book was definitely challenging and I had to take my time reading it. Thankfully, Penman gives an overview of the main players at the beginning and I found myself referring to it often. When I read historical fiction I tend to look up a lot of the events and people to see if they really occurred. This story reads like a soap opera and it was always fascinating to find that each time I checked it was all true! I'd really like to read it again now that I have been listening to a wonderful podcast, History of the Crusades, which has recapped the events of this book. I was frequently confused the first time around but now think I'd enjoy it more, having a good grasp of the characters and main events. 

It is absolutely fascinating to think that all of this was going on in the Middle East while there was so much happening in Europe during the reign of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. It makes me curious as to why very few authors have attempted to write about it. It is no doubt a very complex subject and time period but it is so rich with possibility I hope we will see more books about Outremer in the future.

Monday, May 2, 2022

A Fugitive Green by Diana Gabaldon


Publication Date: June 27, 2017

Length: 122 pages

This story is a novella first published in Gabaldon's collection Seven Stones to Stand or Fall. It has never been published in book form on its own that I can find other than for audible. I highly recommend buying Seven Stones if you are an Outlander fan as it has several of these novellas in one book and it is worth every penny! This story gives us background on some of the more minor Outlander characters that are linked to some of the major ones. 

It is 1744 when the story opens. Minnie Rennie (aka: Minerva Wattiswade) lives in Paris with her father Andrew Rennie (aka: Raphael Wattiswade). On the surface Raphael is just a dealer of rare books but really he is a collector of letters and information which he uses to his advantage and financial gain. Minnie is well aware of her father's undercover associations and helps him when necessary. She is smart and capable and has a fierce independent streak which serves her well in this shady world. At the opening of the story we find her in the bookstore where a note is delivered concerning a mysterious Mrs. Simpson. Minnie has been expecting this letter for some time as it contains clues as to the identity and, she hopes, the whereabouts of her mother. She is elated to receive it and hopes to travel to meet this Mrs. Simpson. 

Raphael wants Minnie married off well. When he sees an opportunity to obtain both a prospective husband for her and further his quest for information to suit his financial ambitions, he sends her to London to work on both missions. She is to be chaperoned, much to her chagrin, by one Lady Buford and two Irish bodyguards. Minnie is determined to obtain the information her father wishes while not being coerced into a loveless, boring marriage. 

Meanwhile, Hal Grey (brother of John Grey from the Outlander novels) is having troubles of his own. Living in London, he is distraught after the death of his wife, Esme and the unborn child she was carrying. His guilt is further exacerbated by the knowledge that she had been carrying on an affair with a man whom he subsequently shot and killed in a duel. He also has family baggage relating to his now deceased father who committed suicide a few years before when he was suspected of being a secret Jacobite. 

When Minnie is asked to meet with one of her father's contacts she ends up meeting Hal and the two share an intense personal moment. She will end up meeting him again as her tasks cause her to further delve into his personal problems in order to obtain information requested by a secret contact. Minnie also is determined to meet with Mrs. Simpson and find her long lost mother. 

I have read A Fugitive Green twice now. Once when I was an Outlander newbie and then again this month as a long time Outlander fan. It is interesting the things I picked up on the second time around. Little details that mean a lot more now that I'm super familiar with the characters and their future selves in the big books and Lord John Grey spinoffs. It is a great addition to the stories and character personalities you won't find in the main novels. 

Having said that, I think that as a stand alone story it would probably not be my cup of tea. I was already invested in Minnie and Hal because I knew about John Grey and also a bit about them as related to the Outlander saga. I admit I'm not a fan of novellas in general because I like to really sink my teeth into a story and they always leave me feeling cheated out of that experience. But in order to really care about these characters you would need to have more of a reason than the one outlined in the plot of A Fugitive Green. It is not terribly detailed or compelling on its own. Seven Stones is itself a collection that I wouldn't care much about had I not already been so invested in the characters. 

As always, Gabaldon is original and interesting with the witty dialogue and vocabulary. This is an area she excels in. The time and place are always authentic and well researched and I am always pleased at how she ends her stories with a clever line each time. One of the best things about her books is the way in which she does not constantly explain things to the reader. She is great at just telling the story and assuming we will eventually pick up on what is happening. It's always a great brain challenge! A Fugitive Green is a good read if you want more insight into the Greys of Outlander.