A satisfying read with a solid ending

‘The Return of Captain John Emmett’ – Elizabeth Speller


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The Return of Captain John Emmett – Elizabeth Speller

It is 1920 and Laurence Bartram has come through the First World War but lost his young wife and son. He receives a letter from the sister of his old friend, John Emmett. Why, she wonders, did Emmett survive the war only to kill himself? Laurence begins to investigate…

I was a bit dubious when I picked up this book. According to The Independent, this novel is ‘the new ‘Birdsong’ – only better’. And I really enjoyed ‘Birdsong’ so felt this gave Speller’s book high expectations. Suffice to say, it took me a while to get into the pace of the novel and I found myself only really beginning to enjoy the mystery after I had read the first one hundred pages.

This is a good mystery that does not drown in historical fact. Whilst the mystery focuses on the First World War, there are plenty of elements to the novel that make this an enjoyable read. I did find it quite comical that Laurence seems to get so much information from his friend, Charles, and felt that at times, the whole process could be sped up if Laurence simply continued to interview his friend! But, it is as if Speller realised this and introduced more characters into the mix who seemingly could provide more ambiguous clues to the mystery surrounding John Emmett’s apparent suicide.

Whilst I did find the investigations a little exhausting, I couldn’t help but suspect each character that Laurence met in his quest for the truth. The scenes with Chilvers and son I found rather chilling, imagining the treatment carried out at the veterans hospital. Disappointingly, this did just become a product of my over-active imagination and I wonder whether Speller could have expanded this part of the plot a little more to add further substance to the story.

So, is this book like ‘Birdsong’? Personally, I don’t think so. Few flashbacks in first person mean that readers are relying on character versions of events which fuel the mystery that Laurence is investigating. Whilst it provides an insight into WWI, I think Speller’s offering demonstrates the wide-spread effect one event can have on so many people. Overall, I think that this is a good read with a satisfying ending that answers all of your questions.


Female freedom fighters

‘Kingdom of Shadows’ – Barbara Erskine


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Kingdom of Shadows – Barbara Erskine

In a childless and unhappy marriage, Clare Royland is rich and beautiful – but lonely. And fueling her feelings of isolation is a strange, growing fascination with an ancestress from the distant past. Troubled by haunting inexplicable dreams that terrify – but also powerfully compel – her, Clare is forced to look back through the centuries for answers.

In 1306, Scotland is at war. Isobel, Countess of Buchan, faces fear and the prospect of untimely death as the fighting surrounds her. But passionate and headstrong, her trials escalate when she is persecuted for her part in crowning Robert the Bruce, her lover.

Duncairn, Isobel’s home and Clare’s beloved heritage, becomes a battleground for passions that span the centuries. As husband Paul’s recklessness threatens their security, Clare must fight to save Duncairn, and to save herself from the powers of Isobel…

This is a typical Barbara Erskine novel which follows two female protagonists – one in modern England and the second a character from the past. ‘Kingdom of Shadows’ is a historic, romantic thriller that shifts from rich Clare Royland, to her Scottish roots and her 14th century ancestor, Isobel, the fiery and independent Countess of Buchanan. The journey of the two characters is thrilling and claustrophobic as each woman seeks freedom from their husbands, and, in Clare’s case, the nightmares.

The disintegration of Clare’s marriage and the distrust her friends and family show towards her makes the reader feel desperate towards her plight. The change that her husband undergoes and the irrational thinking is shocking and at every turn that Clare tries to escape, he has blocked her way. The reader knows the truth of what is happening and at times I felt like screaming at the characters and how they have all been beguiled by Paul Royland’s web of lies.

The parallels that emerge between Clare and Isobel as two women fighting for independence are fully solidified at the end of the novel. Whilst the central setting of Duncairn Castle brings the two women together and sets off the chain of events for Clare over inheritance and ownership, I found myself only truly exploring the connections between Clare and Isobel once I had finished the novel. I think this is an interesting way of taking the reader through the story and it is great that the story still plays on your mind once you have finished it

Whilst Erksine typically centralises her story on two women, I still found myself wondering what was happening to other important male characters. This was a little frustrating but readers have to place their trust in Erskine in the faith that they will find out the movements of Paul, Robert the Bruce and Isobel’s husband. This did not ruin my enjoyment of the story and, having read so many of Barbara Erskine’s novels, I knew that her central protagonists would reveal the subplots in their own time.

I really enjoyed reading this novel. Yes, there are quite a few characters in 1306 Scotland and there is a lot of Scottish history running throughout, but this did not ruin my enjoyment. Do not feel you have to know your history in advance of reading this book and don’t be surprised if you find yourself looking up the stories once you have finished! I would recommend this if you do enjoy historical novels; it is such a thrilling read that even though it is nearly 800 pages long, the pace never slows for a moment.