The Sea Gate with author Jane Johnson

The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson is a wonderful story with the perfect blend of present-day and past and a compelling cast of characters featuring the frail but crusty Olivia–I picture Maggie Smith or Judi Dench in the role–and the lovely Becky who is trying to get her life in order.

There are broken families, a house with a hidden passage to the sea, a scheming family intent on fraud, and a long-ago murder or was it merely a disappearance? As the book description says: an entrancing tale of love and courage.

Throughout, Jane Johnson ratchets up the suspense chapter by chapter culminating in a very satisfying ending. I recommend it highly!

The author, Jane Johnson, kindly agreed to answer a few questions.

Most of the story is set in Cornwall in a house called Chynalls. Chynalls is almost its own character in the book. Where did you get the inspiration for it?
Jane: Chynalls was inspired by a number of houses I’ve known over the years. There was my grandmother’s house, which was rambling and rather decrepit, and made strange noises at night (including the sound of a brass doorknob turning where for years there had been no door Flushed); and my great-aunt’s house, from which I stole the scullery, with its channel to wick away water – or maybe blood; and the spider-infested outdoor privy; and one of the houses I grew up in down in a remote spot on the south coast had a tunnel that ran from the cellars to the shingle beach and was locally known as a smugglers’ passage. The ‘sea gate’ itself I spotted in a local village – I lived in the area of West Penwith, in the far tip of Cornwall, where the novel is set.

A Cornwall sea gate used for the cover

Unique and relatable characters are one of Jane Johnson’s strengths. I asked her whether any of the characters in The Sea Gate inspired by real people she knows.
Jane: Not directly, but the idea for the novel came initially from conversations with my mother, who was around the same age as Olivia when the war broke out, and she spent some of those years down here in Cornwall, before going up to London to work. My mother, though, did not have an artistic bone in her body, unlike Olivia, whose paintings made her semi-famous. My mother, on the other hand, when engaging in a Christmas game of ‘Pic-Charades’, in which you have to draw for your game-partner the word on the card, managed to bamboozle me completely by giving a duck 4 legs…
Several of the old folk in the village where I live offered me their recollections of life here during the war and I felt it was important to honour their memories and that remarkable generation. They have – including my mother – all passed now. I mourn them, but am so glad I managed to write some of their experiences into the book.

What was the most difficult part of the artistic process for this book?
Jane: I think the fact that it’s set where I live gave me pause to begin with, especially since some of the events are within living memory for some of the very oldest inhabitants. I didn’t want anyone reading it and complaining that the farmer’s wife wasn’t dead and that he didn’t have a daughter with special needs, or that their father definitely did not hoard butter etc… So instead of calling the village Mousehole, I called it by its old Cornish name of Porth Enys – the Island Port: and that gave me the creative distance I needed to free me to write the story I wanted to write.

Porth Enys … also called Mousehole

Were the WWII incidents and circumstances influenced by what really happened in Cornwall during that war?
Jane: Yes, I used actual incidents and well researched circumstances – the bombing of Penzance, the crash of a German warplane into farm fields, the stationing of internees and POWs at the local farm to carry out the farmwork for the war effort, the pelting with rotten vegetables of French refugees when they docked at Falmouth, the trawlers lost to mines and submarine attacks; the coast dotted with lookout posts and barb-wired off from civilians; the general sense of paranoia about strangers. It was fascinating to do the research and learn more about the region I live in, and enormous fun to write such recent history for once: it’s the first time I’ve written anything so modern, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My next novel – THE WHITE HARE – is set in a remote valley in Cornwall in 1954. I’m about two-thirds of the way through and the end is in sight!

The Swingate stone near Porth Enys into which a WWII plane crashed.

The Seat Gate by Jane Johnson ~~ A broken family, a house of secrets—an entrancing tale of love and courage set during the Second World War.

After Rebecca’s mother dies, she must sort through her empty flat and come to terms with her loss. As she goes through her mother’s mail, she finds a handwritten envelope. In it is a letter that will change her life forever.

Olivia, her mother’s elderly cousin, needs help to save her beloved home. Rebecca immediately goes to visit Olivia in Cornwall only to find a house full of secrets—treasures in the attic and a mysterious tunnel leading from the cellar to the sea, and Olivia, nowhere to be found.

As it turns out, the old woman is stuck in hospital with no hope of being discharged until her house is made habitable again. Rebecca sets to work restoring the home to its former glory, but as she peels back the layers of paint and grime, she uncovers even more buried secrets—secrets from a time when the Second World War was raging, when Olivia was a young woman, and when both romance and danger lurked around every corner…

A Year of Reading – part 2

Last week, I listed a bunch of books that I either read or, in many cases, did not finish in 2020. Here’s the rest of the books from a confusing, stressful, distracted and unfocused year.

As in prior years, I’ve used the following rating scheme: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type. As I said in last week’s post, my apologies to those authors whose novels I did not finish.

  • A Well-Behaved Woman by Theresa Anne FowlerER – The title of this one appealed to me as did the peek into the lives of the Vanderbilts, specifically Alva Vanderbilt who married into the “newly rich but socially scorned family” this saving her own family from financial ruin. By the way, Alva Vanderbilt isn’t as well-behaved as the title implies.
  • The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff – DNF – This novel kept popping up on Facebook and other places and I’ve enjoyed other novels by Jenoff, so I gave it a try. I think I’ve read too many novels about women who become SOE agents in WWII and this one didn’t differentiate itself in the early chapters.
  • Marlene by C.W. Gortner – ER – I’m a big fan of C.W. Gortner’s novels. In this novel he’s written the fascinating story of Marlene Dietrich from her early schoolgirl days to her rise as a Hollywood star and her support for US troops during WWII.
  • The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee – ER – Memoir of a teenager who escapes North Korea’s brutal and repressive regime and ultimately reaches the safety of South Korea. A story of daring, ingenuity, perseverance, and triumph.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller – OR – A discussion of favourite historical fiction authors led me to a discovery of Madeline Miller and her novel Circe. I’ve never been a fan of mythology – I find all those gods, their powers, and their complicated relationships confusing. In Circe, Madeline Miller creates a compelling, action-filled tale that explores the intersection of gods and humans. Her prose is superb.
  • Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin – DNF – An American woman works for the French resistance during WWII “while playing hostess to the invading Germans at the iconic Hotel Ritz in Paris.” Unfortunately, the characters did not grab my attention, but that could just be the pandemic, as I’ve enjoyed other novels by Melanie Benjamin.
  • Double Cross by Ben McIntyre – GR – Non-fiction: the story of the double-agents involved in Operation Fortitude and how they tricked the Germans into believing that the Allies would attack Calais rather than Normandy. What detracts from the story is the huge cast of characters and the detail with which McIntyre explores each one of them, often going back in time at length before proceeding with the main drama.
  • The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan – OR – Non-fiction account of D-Day. I found it mesmerizing, superbly told, suspenseful and very satisfying.
  • The Library of Legends by Janie Chang – ER – I had the privilege of an early-release copy of this novel. Janie Chang’s tale of a convoy of student refugees who travel across China, fleeing the hostilities of a brutal war with Japan is quite wonderful. The students have been entrusted with a 500-year-old collection of myths and folklore known as the Library of Legends. Here’s the article I wrote for the Historical Novel Society.
  • Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan – ER – when the opportunity came along to read an early-release of this biography, I quickly said yes. Anya Seton is one of those novelists who got me hooked on historical fiction. During her tumultuous life she wrote multiple bestsellers. As I said my review, Lucinda MacKethan’s biography is a superb story of a famous author’s life along with her struggles for recognition and fulfilment. 
  • Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig – ER – A story of a group of Smith College graduates who travel to France during WWI to help citizens whose lives have been destroyed by war. The novel compellingly tackles a central question: “What happens when you take a group of women with wildly different personalities and interests and set them down in the high-pressure situation of a war zone.” To be released in early March.
  • Red At the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ER – Selected by my book club, this novel “looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives–even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.”
  • The Lost Girls by Heather Young – ER – From the six-year-old girl who disappears to her sisters, mother and nieces, everyone in this novel is lost in her own way. Through multiple timelines, Heather Young patiently and carefully reveals what really happened in this compelling story.
  • The Year I Made 12 Dresses by Patricia Parsons – ER – As Charlie sews her way through the year after her mother’s death, she finds wisdom and unexpected happiness while uncovering secrets from the past. This was one of those novels that grabs you slowly and suddenly you find yourself in that I-can’t-wait-to-get-back-to-it mode.
  • A Castle in Wartime by Catherine Bailey – ER – I was delighted to discover another book by non-fiction author Catherine Bailey. Catherine writes non-fiction with the drama and excitement of fiction. A superb story of one family, their missing sons, and the fight to defeat the Nazis.
  • Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain – OR – I began 2020 with Vera Brittain’s biography. Abandoning her studies at Oxford in 1915 to enlist as a nurse in the armed services, she served in London, in Malta, and on the Western Front. By war’s end she had lost virtually everyone she loved. It is “both a record of what she lived through and an elegy for a vanished generation.”

This is the sixth year I’ve shared my reading. You can check our previous years: 2019 (part 1 and part 2), 2018 part 22018 part 1, 2017 (part 1 and part 2), 2016 (part 1 and part 2). A Year of Reading 2015 – Part 1 and Part 2. A Year of Reading 2014 – Part 1 and Part 2

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

2020- a Strange Year of Reading

This was the year of DNF. After the middle of March, I would find a book, read five to ten chapters and then say, “Nope. Not that one.” I tried historical fiction, my favourite genre, but that didn’t work. I tried beach reads, but that didn’t work either. I was able to lose myself in a few non-fiction selections like Samantha Power’s compelling memoir The Education of an Idealist and The Girl with Seven Names by Lee Hyeon-Seo, a memoir of a woman who escaped North Korea. If you think Covid is bad, try living in North Korea. I checked best selling lists and couldn’t even generate enough enthusiasm to get past the descriptions.

My reading mojo returned when I selected several books for a novel that’s brewing inside my head. In total, I’ve read 33 books give or take. See below for comments on the first bunch.

I apologize to all of the authors whose novels I did not finish. I hope 2021 will be a better reading year and that I’ll get back to each and every one of them.

As in prior years, I’ve used the following rating scheme: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type.

  • Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay – ER – A page-turner about toxic friendships between women, about obsession and what we can lose in the name of love
  • I’ll Never Tell by Catherine McKenzie – ER – A family-owned camp, a murder, and the unravelling that occurs after the parents’ will is read.
  • Scholars of Mayhem by Daniel Guiet and Timothy Smith – ER – Non-Fiction: The true story of an SOE team that commanded a ghostly army of 10,000 French Resistance fighters.
  • Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan – ER – Fiction based on a true story of a young Italian man’s courage and resilience as a WWII spy. See interview featuring Mark Sullivan.
  • The Old Success by Martha Grimes – DNF – Murder mystery set on the Cornish coast.
  • Ladies Night by Mary Kay Andrews – DNF – A woman discovers her husband is cheating on her and ends up in therapy.
  • American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – DNF – I wasn’t up for the gritty nature of this story about a Mexican woman and her child on the run from a drug cartel.
  • The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis – GR – An interesting look at the early part of the 20th century and an iconic building, although I found the back and forth timelines somewhat choppy.
  • High Tide Club by Mary Kay Andrews – LR – A satisfying story of old friendships, secrets, betrayal and a long-unsolved murder.
  • The Rumor by Elin Hilderbrand – LR – Best friends with perfect marriages and beautiful kids form a backdrop for a rumor that almost destroys everything.
  • The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power – ER – A compelling memoir of Samantha Power’s journey from immigrant to war correspondent to presidential Cabinet official and ultimately US Ambassador to the UN.
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison – ER – I’ve never read Toni Morrison and a friend recommended that I start with this novel. Superb prose, compelling characters and deep insights into the Black experience in America.
  • The Lost Girls of Devon by Barbara O’Neal – DNF – Four generations of women grappling with family betrayals and long-buried secrets.
  • 28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand – ER – Explores the agony and romance of a one-weekend-per-year affair. A page turner full of emotion.
  • The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson – DNF – In 1936, a lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian.
  • The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes – DNF – Depression-era America. This story also explores the Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and the women who made it a success. Apparently, the release of these two novels at about the same time caused a lot of controversy.
  • There There by Tommy Orange – DNF – A book club read and a story of twelve characters from Native communities who are all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Too much angst to read during lockdown.

More to follow in another post.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.