Have you ever heard/read of the word "juddered"? Not jetted, not jarred, not shuddered... "juddered." Used in the context of this novel (and it was used twice), it was something like "juddered to a halt." Now... I've never seen this word before, but it certainly made me judder to a halt. Though Dictionary.com suggests "judder" means "to vibrate violently," which means I'm not quite sure it means what Mosse wanted it to mean, but if anyone has more info on this, please pass it along. I am totally willing to have my vocabulary expanded.

But why do I mention this as the first point in my review of Sepulchre? Well, not because Mosse's writing is jarring or because it makes me slam on the brakes and quickly end something. It's more because both Mosse novels have let me go along for a while, but then ultimately caused me to tilt my head and ask if perhaps we couldn't have had one more pass with an editor, because a few things could use some review and tightening up.

Don't get me wrong, clearly I enjoy Mosse's novels. I sought this one out as soon as I found it in paperback and I know that I'll read whatever else she writes. The best part of a Mosse novel is the beginning... as you meet the characters, ease into the story, and start absorbing the time period. Kate Mosse writes quite well as a historical fiction novelist. Note: I actually do mean a historical fiction novelist here, not a historical romance novelist, as so many female historical writers seem to be these days if there's any hint of romance in the book. And I also want to point out that she is, indeed, a novelist, in the sense that her plot line takes precedence. Mosse clearly does her research when she invests herself in a time period and she's in love with the south of France, which you can also tell from her descriptions of the country. Mosse crafts intricate plot lines, embellishes with beautiful historic detail, and conjures likable characters (though her modern characters are not always quite as fleshed out as the period characters, and they often feel too full of the echoes of the past to have enough personality of their own). But ultimately, it's this ability that makes me expect a little more from her when we keep moving through the novel. These books are suffused with suspense and tinged with the supernatural, but about two thirds through Sepulchre (and, for that matter, Labyrinth), I set the book down with a sigh because I was getting a little tired of the build-up to an ending which I'd already figured out. I won't give anything away, but trust me, you'll figure it out long before the book gets there.

If you have read Labyrinth, then Sepulchre's format will seem familiar with the dual plotline format. (Indeed, even a few characters will be familiar to you.) In the late nineteenth century, a brother and sister have traveled from Paris to visit their aunt in a small town outside of Carcassonne. This aunt has inherited her husband's estate upon his death, a house that has a great many dark and mysterious legends surrounding it. Here we have secret lovers, murder, feigned deaths, desperate attempts to flee evil villains, duels, and dabblings in the occult. In the twenty-first century, we have a young woman who is trying to finish a book on Debussy and, while she's at it, piece together some family history of her own. Here we have the beginnings of a romance, murder, a not-quite-evil-but-mostly-just-led-astray villain, and some more tame dabblings in the occult. Unsurprisingly, these times are tied together and the modern era's quest to discover what happened in the past will also attempt to right any wrongs leftover.

Ultimately, I would say that as long as you're not expecting too much of this novel and you enjoy period novels, then there's a high chance that you'll be pleased with this. Mosse clearly has the researcher's need for detail and that always makes me feel like we're starting on the right foot, but something still needs to come together with the gothic novel part, whether that's inserting a real twist or what. I still finished feeling like I wanted something more, and not just another Mosse novel, though I'll be looking for that, too.


Forever Amber

It was the evening following a wake for a family friend and the immediate family (including those of us deemed honorary family) was gathered about the kitchen table, talking and watching the number bottles of wine begin to outnumber us. Not normally a crowd to show deference to any one person when it comes to directing the conversation, it seemed like the widow was enjoying this unusual honor and for whatever reason, she led us to Forever Amber. She was explaining just how scandalous this book was when she and her girlfriends read it in their youth; they shared a dog-eared copy and circulated between them to read again and again. The wicked sparkle in her eye told us more than enough (though despite our protests, she went on), and within a week after returning home, I found a stack of Forever Ambers at the Strand -- so I sent one off to all the women who had been part of our conversation as a memento of quite an evening. But once the gifts were sent off, I didn't actually pick up my own copy for quite some time. (It is a little shy of 1000 pages, after all, and even with a book that isn't in hardcover, that's a bit unwieldy for subway reading.) I shelved it, amused by the script on the spine and wondered where it would attract little notice from friends. It was only recently, wishing I had a trashy novel handy with which to spend an afternoon, that I plucked Forever Amber from its tucked away corner on the shelf and found myself with a romance novel that might have been written in the 40s, but had all the feel of a contemporary historical romance epic. Clearly, here was the grandmother (grand madam?) of a literary tradition...

Forever Amber was published in 1944. The published version was Kathleen Windsor's fifth draft of the novel... and those 972 pages represent only ONE FIFTH of the original manuscript. Fourteen states banned the novel, classifying it as pornographic, but sex wasn't the only issue. From the Independent's obit on Kathleen Winsor: "The Attorney-General of Massachusetts, in explaining his reasons for banning the book, said that he had counted 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, seven abortions, 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men and 49 'miscellaneous objectionable passages'." Of course, this only helped it become a best-seller. In its first week, 100,000 copies were sold, and went on to sell over three million copies.

The novel tells the story of Amber St. Clair, a sexual adventuress who makes her way up the ranks of 17th century English society by using her wits and her... ahem... other endowments. She sleeps with and marries men who can offer increasing amounts of wealth or better titles, ultimately reaching great heights in society, though with a rather sullied reputation. Early in the novel, she has her fortune told and is appalled when it suggests she will have many husbands and several children, for she only loves one man -- Lord Carlton. Lord Carlton is "responsible" for taking her away from her small country town to London (I have to use quotes because really, Amber's the one who's really responsible for it and she begs Lord Carlton to take her), and it is Lord Carlton that Amber loves and loses again and again throughout the novel. He swears from the beginning that he'll never marry her, but this doesn't stop Amber from clinging to her hope that one day, they will be together.

Now, you might suspect that with such a racy novel, perhaps we'll be dealing with a story where our heroine goes on a journey and learns something in life. Well, you'd be wrong. The title is rather indicative of what to expect... because Amber never changes from being a selfish creature who is willing to do anything to get what she wants, but she's unwilling to accept certain facts and realities. From country girl to actress to duchess, Amber is forever Amber.

Throughout this novel, I kept thinking about Gone with the Wind (that "other" historical romance of the late 30s/40s) and, unsurprisingly, it is frequently compared to that novel for many reasons, such as the presence of multiple husbands that are almost entirely being used (as opposed to being married for love or such nonsense) to get back at another man (who she never marries), and an ending that leaves you with a vague "wtf?" feeling. (Though I have a somewhat higher opinion of Scarlett than I do of Amber.) It's not that I feel cheated, necessarily, it's just that the ending made me question whether or not I was supposed to be judging Amber, for such a fate suggests that she's getting her comeuppance. I had never before felt like the book was passing judgment on her, so I felt rather thrown.

Even so, from the first chapter, you can definitely see the origin of every historical romance novel in the pages of Forever Amber. It's easy to see why it caused such a fuss at the time, and, once you set all the scandalous stuff aside, it's an interesting account of various historical events (the plague, the Great Fire of London, etc.). Of course, why would you want to set the scandalous stuff aside?


Jane and Prudence

There's something quietly lovely about a Barbara Pym novel. It's a perfect rainy day read, as you imagine yourself in England... if you have a large chintz armchair, all the better. And while I don't think you need to adore Jane Austen in order to enjoy Barbara Pym, it probably helps, though there's something a little darker and more melancholy in Pym.

Jane and Prudence unsurprisingly deals with two Englishwomen named Jane and Prudence. (As a result, I was singing "Dear Prudence" over the three or four days where I was reading this.) Jane is a minister's wife who is a bit older than Prudence; the two met when Jane was her tutor at Oxford and their unlikely friendship stuck. Jane's husband has just taken over a country parish and Jane is more than usually aware of the fact that she's not a particularly good clergyman's wife. Nevertheless, they move into this parish with their eighteen-year-old daughter, Flora (who is about to head up to Oxford herself), and settle in to meet the locals and navigate the intricacies of a small country town. Prudence, meanwhile, lives in London; she's unmarried and while she is employed, she is not absorbed in academic work, which often leads the older women of their college back at Oxford to be at a loss for fitting Prudence into a particularly neat category, though Jane might say that she might not have her work, but "Prudence has her love affairs." And for the time, it does seem that Prudence has such a romantic nature as to be enjoying the attention of a man or fancying herself in love with another. Prudence's latest focus is her employer, a middle-aged man that does not seem particularly interested in her, beyond one day a while back when he used her Christian name and took her hand as they looked out a window. Jane (in a not-quite-focused way) tries to think of who might be suitable for Prudence in this new town.

Aside from scenes set at Prudence's office (where her spinster coworkers pay close attention to what time the tea should be brought in, and mild chatter about the two men in the office), the majority of the book is set in the country parish, where you have the usual assemblage of busybodies and village VIPs. As with all Pym novels, you're presented with women in a rather narrow life, struggling to find their niche or at least muddle through without one. It's highly representative of the post-war feeling of confusion that women of the age must have experienced as they balanced the desire to have work of their own just as they're expected to marry and start families. The intriguing thing, of course, is that it might not be exactly the same today, but it's easy to relate to the unsettled feelings as one tries to find a place in the world that feels like it fits.

It's easy to see why one might suggest Pym to those who enjoy Austen. Pym novels are, on the surface, easily summed up as novels about Englishwomen in the middle of the 20th century, often too smart for their surroundings, but without a means of focusing that intelligence as they become wives, mothers, or settle into their role as spinsters (for indeed, there is no real place for a single woman unless it is that of a spinster).

If you're looking for a quiet, lovely novel with some subtle social commentary and quite good character insight, then I suggest you try reading a Pym novel. The rainy afternoon and a tray with tea and scones are not required, but they certainly help set the scene.