Spoilers? Not a problem with Joan Aiken…

weeping-ash

Readers gave five star reviews to The Weeping Ash, but it’s impossible to spoil the plot!  There is so much action in this eighteenth century episode of the Paget Saga, set in Joan Aiken’s own home town – and house – but which also travels through Afghanistan and Persia and across the seas back to the little town of Petworth, where she introduces us to some of the inhabitants of the much grander Petworth House, seat of the Wyndham family, and frequented by the Prince of Wales…that you couldn’t possibly give it all away.

“Mystery, murder, mayhem, menace…set in the English countryside…oh, except for the chapters that are set in India, Afghanistan, Persia and surrounding areas (yes, all in the same book…but it’s almost like two books in one, since the chapters alternate between two sets of characters…until they finally meet near the end). What more do you need? Plenty, if you’re Joan Aiken, who is never satisfied with the simple where the complicated will do just as well, or better.

Let’s start with young Fanny, aged sixteen, who’s just married a man three times her age. Which might not be so bad, if he hadn’t turned out to be a despicable brute (and that’s putting it mildly). Talk about a series of unfortunate events…Lemony Snicket had nothing on Joan Aiken. Fanny’s life with her horrible husband is getting worse by the minute…and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they always do. (Three surly stepdaughters, two of them slightly older than Fanny, aren’t helping matters any either.) Obviously, Fanny would benefit greatly from some cheerful company, which is on its way, in the form of…

Scylla and Cal, seventeen-year-old twins, children of a cousin of Fanny’s husband. They were living happily enough near the palace of a maharajah — Cal gambling with the maharajah’s eldest son, Scylla instructing two of the maharajah’s younger sons — until suddenly — the maharajah met with a fatal “accident” — most of his children were murdered — no one was safe — and Cal and Scylla were forced to flee for their lives (Cal, the poet, taking his precious manuscripts with him, of course). Where do they flee to? Logically enough, to their Cousin Juliana’s house in England — only now it’s being occupied by their middle-aged cousin Thomas Paget, his very young wife Fanny, and his three not-so-pleasant daughters. (Sound familiar?) What will happen when these two branches of the family collide? Wait and see!

If you know a little about Joan Aiken herself, not just her writing, bits of this book may start to seem slightly autobiographical…for instance, the bits about what it’s really like to be closely related to a poet (Joan knew this from experience…her father was one, and a good one…he was the poet Conrad Aiken…and he probably wasn’t always easy to live with!). And if she seems to know the house in the book quite well…there’s a reason for that…it’s her house. Yes, her actual house, or at least, inspired by it. The real house known as The Hermitage, Petworth (same as the one in the book) was where Joan Aiken lived in her later years. One hopes that her actual life there was far more peaceful than the lives of the people in this book. Perhaps that was exactly the trouble, though…it was TOO peaceful and she got a bit bored. And started concocting this tale of mystery, murder, mayhem…you know the rest. (Watch out if you are a writer and you go to live in a large old house in the English countryside…you never know what strange ideas the house might decide to put into your head. They’ve got minds of their own, these old houses…)

If you already know and love some of Joan Aiken’s works, this book will probably make more sense to you. (Then again…who said books had to make sense?) With or without prior knowledge of the author’s works, laughter and tears will accompany you through this wild romp (through various parts of the world) until the adventure comes to its own peculiar but oddly satisfying close at the house of…The Weeping Ash.”

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 Joan’s own haunted house on the website

And in case we have missed anything here are a few final words from another reader:
“Joan Aiken used her own house in Sussex as the main setting for the book, historical melodrama,  set in the late 18th century, and the two contrasting stories are a rather grim and frightening reminder of how harsh conditions often were in those times- and how cheap life was. You only have to look at old gravestones to see how many children people had- and how many died young. She also paints a nasty picture of the press-gangs which were operating then. Novelists of the time tended to see less of the whole picture, but Aiken, through hindsight, is able to show how great the contrasts were between rich and poor, and the injustice of the social system.

That said, this is still cracking entertainment, with a vengeful ghost, a haunted tree and lots of romance and thrills…”

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Thanks to Kit and Mrs H.Aver for these splendid reviews: read more here

More of Joan Aiken’s Romantic Sagas now coming from Sourcebooks

 

 

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A fatal flaw makes a memorable heroine…

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“Oh I am sorry…it is a dreadful fault I have…”

 Juliana Paget might be just another Regency Miss with romantic hopes of meeting the man of her dreams – and in this case he must of course resemble King Charles  the First, heroic subject of the Biography she has been assisting her father to write – but aside from this handicap,  romance for Juliana is hindered by another dreadful fault…

A perfect heroine, like a fairytale princess, is a copybook case, sure to meet her prince, let alone obviously recognise him at first sight. A Joan Aiken heroine is likely to have ideas of her own – or in this case ones she has gleaned from books, like Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey – and which will lead her into all kinds of trouble.

What if she doesn’t know who’s friend or foe?

When our heroine, having rescued a stranger fleeing from French revolutionaries is then being rescued right back by him, and borne away to safety in a hot air balloon, he naturally enough tries to clasp her in his arms.

But while helpfully mending one of the tapestries he is carrying over the channel to the Prince Regent at Brighton – for naturally:

  “She carried a housewife full of needles and thread in her reticule and hated to be idle”

– she has inadvertently mislaid a spare needle…

” He let out a most appalling oath, fortunately in Dutch.”

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And does she learn from her mistake?  Of course not. Joan Aiken is able to use this as a handy plot twist a couple more times, so that when the proposal scene finally arrives, does the hero go down on one knee? Absolutely not, as he understandably says:

” It’s odds but you’ve left a needle sticking somewhere in that grass!”

And is he the one who looks exactly like King Charles the First?

You’ll have to read it and find out…!

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The Smile of the Stranger is the first of four Joan Aiken Romances

  being reprinted by Sourcebooks this year

Read more about Joan Aiken’s rip roaring period novels here

And an interview with Sourcebooks Editor and Aiken fan Deb Werksman