Archive for the ‘Mary Stewart’ Category

the stormy petrel mary stewartThe Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart ~ 1991. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1991. Hardcover. ISBN:  978-0-688-11035-2. 176 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Short and refreshingly sweet, this pleasant contemporary romance reads like the author was in a confident and relaxed mood when she dashed it off. It’s smooth and seamless, and a fast and effortless read. I enjoyed it.

Twenty-seven-year-old Cambridge don Rose Fenemore is ready for a break from her busy life; as well as lecturing and tutoring, she is a published poet as well as a writer of popular science fiction – the poetry under her own name, the sci fi under a pseudonym. When she sees an ad for an “ivory tower” retreat, a cottage on a remote Scottish island, she is intrigued enough to convince her physician brother to join her there for a holiday. Crispin is an avid bird watcher and photographer in his rare free time, and he and Rose have a marvelous relationship, each allowing the other plenty of space on their trips together, but also happy companionship when their interests merge.

Off to the tiny (and apparently fictional) isle of Moila, then, where Rose finds a small community of welcoming villagers, a recently renovated seaside cottage, and a stunningly beautiful natural world. Steep cliffs, shingle beaches, a few sandy coves, stands of seagrass and wildflowers, tiny rockbound lochs, a ruined Iron Age stronghold (a “broch”), and an abundant population of seabirds, seals and otters all unite to make Moila a very special place indeed. The finest part of this likeable book is Mary Stewart’s very evident delight in describing all of the previous; if Moila is a fictional place, then it must be based on a reality which the author is very familiar with. Her descriptive prose has the authentic ring, from the scent of the sedums growing on the tumbled stones of the broch to the iniquities of the “Defenders of the Highlands”, the vicious clouds of biting midges which swarm in their thousands when the breeze dies down.

But no sooner has Rose settled into her quaint cottage than things begin to go sideways; her peaceful retreat is suddenly a hive of activity. Rose wakens one night to the sound of someone in her kitchen; and stumbling down to welcome her brother – she assumes he has unexpectedly arrived in the night – she finds a handsome and charming young man making tea as if he owns the place. Which, he claims, he does. Or did. The cottage was apparently his foster parents’, and he has no idea that they have moved away, as he himself has been out of touch in an unspecified location for several years. Many apologies and all the rest, but surely Rose will forgive his unwitting intrusion?

No sooner have Rose and the smooth-talking Ewen made tentative friends over tea than another young man tumbles in out of the rain. This arrival claims he is a camper chased out of his tent by the rising wind; he has seen the lights in the cottage and seeks refuge from the storm. He identifies himself as a visiting geologist, John Parsons, but there is something about the cold and calculating glances the two men exchange which suggests something may be up. Rose sensibly retreats to her room, leaving the two young men to make do as best they can on sofa and floor, and when she awakes to find them gone, she thinks she’s seen the last of them.

She hasn’t.

I admired this heroine. She is most sensible and cool as a cucumber when things begin to tumble down around her ears. She deeply appreciates the place she has found herself in, and her rhapsodies on nature are sincere and unsentimental. She is properly cynical regarding the things that require such a view, and her musings on integrity, artistic and otherwise, are well stated and generally spot on.

A slight novel, with little in the way of true suspense; we never really fear for our capable heroine, as emotionally and physically she proves she is able to fend for herself. The romance aspect is low key as well, but comfortably there; we don’t quite know where our characters are all going to end up, but we’re pretty sure at that last page that their futures bode well.

Bonus portrayals of Rose’s two visiting students, and an intriguing glimpse into Crispin’s world and his “his life-her life” marriage. What the author doesn’t follow up is as telling as what she includes.

Nicely done. Thank you, Mary Stewart.

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thornyhold dj mary stewartThornyhold by Mary Stewart ~ 1988. This edition: Ballantine/Fawcett Crest, 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-449-21712-4. 289 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Three-quarters of this romantic suspense novel was absolutely excellent; the promising plot evaporated just a little disappointingly in the concluding chapters, but on reflection my overall impression is favourable. It’s keeper, and it gets a very decent rating of 8/10 on my personal merit scale.

I do believe I am turning into a Mary Stewart fan; I’m feeling rather ashamed of my prior dismissal of this writer; I’m discovering that she is a more than competent writer; she has full control of her words, and I don’t believe I’ve yet to read an awkward phrase. She can write action scenes in vividly cinematic detail – see any of her romantic-suspense novels written between 1954 and 1976 – and accompany those with lyrical descriptions of the places where the action takes place. In a genre which encompasses some disappointingly sub-par stuff – Phyllis A. Whitney springs to mind for some reason, perhaps because I’ve been reading her this year too, and finding her sadly lacking – Stewart’s prose stands out. It’s not high literature, but it is well done, and most enjoyable to read. So I’m adding Mary Stewart to the shelf beside D.E. Stevenson and Georgette Heyer, as ones to track down, read with pleasure, and keep safe for future re-reads. Thank you, fellow internet book people, for giving me the nudge to explore these writers. You were more than right!

Mary Stewart’s heroines are uniformly well-drawn (so far every book I’ve read by her has been focussed on a leading female character), though they do always seem to share some characteristics. They are always good-looking, instantly attractive to men, and much prone to impulsive behaviour, with expected results. Each one of them does have her own personality, though, her own quirks and talents and weaknesses. The heroines are slightly interchangeable, perhaps – a test of a “stock” character is to imagine him or her in another of the author’s books – I could see Stewart’s young ladies managing quite well wherever they were placed within her fictional settings.

The heroine in Thornyhold is no exception, though the action in this low-key novel is confined to occasional verbal sparring. No drawn knives to avoid, no bullets to dodge, no trains to outrace, no rooftops to clamber over – our author at this point was likely ready to take a bit of an action-scene rest; Thornyhold was published in 1988, when Mary Stewart was a most respectable seventy-two.

Young Geillis – Gilly – Ramsay lives a lonely life, with an oddly assorted pair of parents.

I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to. But she met my father, who was a rather saintly clergyman, and he cancelled her out. She dwindled from a potential Morgan le Fay into an English vicar’s wife, and ran the parish, as one could in those days – more than half a century ago – with an iron hand disguised by no glove at all. She retained her dominance, her vivid personality, a hint of cruelty in her complete lack of sympathy for weakness or incompetence. I had, I think, a hard upbringing.

Gilly grows up; her mother dies, and with the natural mourning there is some relief, for her mother was a difficult person to live under. Gilly abandons her University classes and settles in to housekeep for her father; when he dies in his turn, Gilly is twenty-seven, with no resources to fall back on, and no real idea of what her future holds. Then, lo and behold, on her return from her father’s funeral to the vicarage which she will soon have to vacate, she receives a letter informing her that her godmother, (her older cousin, also Geillis, after whom Gilly has been named) has died and has bequeathed to Gilly a small country house and a very small income. Along with the lawyer’s letter is a note to Gilly from Cousin Geillis, telling her that she will find “everything here that you have most wanted.”

Cousin Geillis was something of a pagan, rejecting the outward trappings of Christianity, which made things just the tiniest bit awkward with her uncle-in-law the vicar. Her neighbours in the country regard her as something of a white witch, with her knowledge of herbalism and her sometimes peculiar behaviour, not to mention her large cat – her familiar? – Hodge. Gilly herself has had occasion to note that her cousin has some unique powers, showing up now and then just when most needed to help her young namesake over emotional hurdles in her life, and on one memorable visit providing Gilly a fleeting glimpse into the future, via crystal ball.

So Gilly steps into the life her cousin has left waiting for her. Needless to say there are some twists in store, chief among them being her cousin’s neighbour, Mrs. Trapp, who seems more at home in Geillis’ house than she should be. She brings Gilly meals, and nags her about finding a certain handwritten notebook she claims Geillis would have wanted her to have, and behind her ready smiles Gilly glimpses a steel-trap disposition which is most unnerving.

And, being a romance, there does in due time appear a man. And because it is a Mary Stewart romance, the man in question is preceded by a charming young son, whom Gilly befriends with no idea at all that the friendship will lead to something much, much more.

There is a certain intensity in the first part of the book which was rather heart-rending; one wonders if some of it is autobiographical? Or perhaps it is just cleverly imagined. The lonesome child Gilly is nicely portrayed, though the tone is carefully unemotional; our narrator telling the story is Gilly herself, some seventy years onward, looking back from her (happy) old age.

With the escalating escapades of scheming Mrs. Trapp, the tale turns towards farce, with the ending sequence – concerning, among other things, a love potion gone awry – striking something of a frivolous note after the emotional seriousness of what has come before.

A well-written book in its way, and one I will no doubt return to when I want something not too challenging to pass an hour or two. Good reading for a waiting room or a journey; easy to pick up and put down; the limited number of characters and the straightforward storyline are easy to keep hold of even with frequent interruptions.

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the moon-spinners pb cover mary stewartThe Moon-Spinners by Mary Stewart ~ 1962. This edition: Hodder, 1964. Paperback. 264 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I don’t know what it is – perhaps the snowy weather and the early dark evenings – but this book completely hit the spot with me a few nights ago, following through to the next day as I surreptitiously raced to finish it off in between my proper occupations.

Maybe the appeal comes from the sunny setting – the Isle of Crete at Easter, mountains alive with wildflowers – or possibly just the perfectly adorable love interest of our intelligent heroine – he’s slightly mysterious, rather handsome, charming even on his bed of pain, plus he throws himself wholeheartedly into the fray-of-the-moment, particularly if it’s to avenge damage done to his lady-love.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that The Moon-Spinners is quite beautifully written for its genre, in what I’ve come to realize is Mary Stewart’s trademark detailed travelogue style. It assumes a certain degree of intellectual and general knowledge among its readers, and refuses (for example) to reference in-text literary allusions, assuming our familiarity with them, something I always appreciate when done in an appropriate fashion, as a natural part of the narrator’s voice.

The action scenes were relatively short, though no more believable than any of Stewart’s other escapades, and I found I managed to get through them with only a raised eyebrow, not an outright snort of indignation. Let’s see, now. The heroine is attacked once with a knife and once with a fish spear (the spear episode is while in the water, of course, with the heroine scantily attired in her underthings), and she is present while bullets fly about willy-nilly but ultimately harmlessly, and she manages to bring the chief villain to grief at the very end with a spur of the moment intervention. There are two successful murders (well, perhaps more of the lost-my-temper manslaughter-type murders versus deliberate planning) plus at least one attempted murder, all in just the first few days of what was supposed to be a restful botanizing vacation.

Stewart gets the flowers right, and includes a clever Linnaean word-joke or two which I greatly appreciated, being of the horticultural persuasion myself. The whole novel is packed full of heart-racing action and instant romance, which keeps things clipping right along. The side characters – the heroine’s older cousin, the hero’s local-boy sidekick and charming younger brother – are a fabulous addition to the story, and allow for an abundance of humorous repartee. Even the surviving villains are quite a lot of fun, if you’ll forgive my using “fun” in the same breath as “murderous villain”. One is prone to violent loss of temper, the other tiptoes around anything messy with faint disdain – “Well, I’d hate to have to kill you, but you leave me no choice. Oh, better yet, I’ll leave it up to my brutish sidekick here to deal with you. I just don’t want to know!”  Together they make a diverting team, in every sense of the word. The murderees themselves are unlikable thug types, so we don’t shed too many tears at their demise.

What else can I say? Loved it. The best Mary Stewart I’ve read yet, though My Brother Michael comes close. (Must also post some thoughts on that one, some day.)

So, the story.

It was the egret, flying out of the lemon-grove, that started it. I won’t pretend I saw it straight away as the conventional herald of adventure, the white stag of the fairy-tale, which, bounding from the enchanted thicket, entices the prince away from his followers, and loses him in the forest where danger threatens with the dusk. But, when the big white bird flew suddenly up among the glossy leaves and the lemon-flowers, and wheeled into the mountain, I followed it. What else is there to do when such a thing happens on a brilliant April noonday at the foot of the White Mountains of Crete; when the road is hot and dusty, but the gorge is green, and full of the sound of water, and the white wings, flying ahead, flicker in and out of deep shadow, and the air is full of the scent of lemon-blossom?

Lovely young Nicola comes on holiday to a remote village in Crete. Arriving a day early for a planned rendezvous with her cousin, she wanders into the hills and is assaulted by a knife-wielding Greek; he then takes her to a hut in which she finds a wounded Englishman, Mark. Much swearing to secrecy results; the hiding-out is because Mark’s fifteen-year-old brother has been kidnapped by a gang of thugs, one of whom shot Mark and left him for dead; Mark and Greek pal (Lambis) have realized that killer is now out searching for the not-quite-as-dead-as-thought Mark, to finish him off. A deadly game of cat-and-mouse keeps tension high as the various characters dash (or limp) from nook to cranny to shepherd’s bothy to niche-in-rock-cliff to ancient temple.

After spending the night nursing Mark, Nicola reluctantly goes off down to the village, plays all innocent, and sleuths away like mad. The small hotel where she is booked to stay is run by an oddly assorted partnership. One is a local man, Stratos, returned from years away in England with a nest egg which he is investing in the hotel; the other is his English partner, Tony, a fabulous cook , darling – and also bar-man and waiter and general manager. Tony is much given to gushing extravagances of speech; his dialogue is well-peppered with italics. I wonder rather if Mary Stewart is trying to portray something more than personal eccentricity here; if this novel were a few decades older Tony would be the quintessential “catty gay guy” we see so frequently in contemporary chick lit. As it is there are one or two possibly double entendre references to Tony not being the heroine’s type, and her older cousin Frances, a sophisticated type herself, is quite catty in regards to Tony, calling him “Cedric” after the literary Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Anyway, Nicola snoops about, discovers that all is not as it seems in this peaceful little village, identifies the villains, discovers the fate of the kidnapped boy, foils the nefarious plottings of the gang of villains, and finds true love. This takes several hundred pages, but they are filled with incident and description and clever conversation and in general are a pleasure to read. A good read indeed, completely effortless and a fabulous diversion from the onset of the Canadian winter.

Oh, and the “moon-spinners” of the title. I thought at first this was a reference to the Cretan windmills, as these are a feature of almost every one of this novel’s cover illustrations I’ve seen. You know, round, like the moon; spinning, because they’re windmills. But though a windmill features importantly in the narrative – hence the illustrations – the moon-spinners referred to are something quite different. Here is Nicola, telling their story:

They’re naiads – water nymphs. Sometimes, when you’re deep in the countryside, you meet three girls, walking along the hill tracks in the dusk, spinning. They each have a spindle, and onto these they are spinning their wool, milk-white, like the moonlight. In fact, it is the moonlight, the moon itself, which is why they don’t carry a distaff. They’re not Fates, or anything terrible; they don’t affect the lives of men; all they have to do is to see that the world gets its hours of darkness, and they do this by spinning the moon down out of the sky. Night after night, you can see the moon getting less and less, the ball of light waning, while it grows on the spindles of the maidens. Then, at length, the moon is gone, and the world has darkness, and rest, and the creatures of the hillsides are safe from the hunter, and the tides are still . . .

Then, on the darkest night, the maidens take their spindles down to the sea, to wash their wool. And the wool slips from the spindles into the water, and unravels in long ripples of light from the shore to the horizon, and there is the moon again, rising above the sea, just a thin curved thread, re-appearing in the sky. Only when all the wool is washed, and wound again into a white ball in the sky, can the moon-spinners start their work once more, to make the night safe for hunted things . .

Worth reading the book, just for the bits like that. I’m liking Mary Stewart more and more!

One more note. Disney made a 1964 movie based on this novel, starring Hayley Mills. It sounds like “loosely based” is more accurate; descriptions of the Disney production show that the plot diverges widely from Mary Stewart’s crisp thriller. Apparently no expense was spared in the making of the film, which was filmed on location in Crete, with Disney rebuilding a war-damaged village and engaging local people as background players. I’ve not seen it myself, and from the sounds of the plot changes, would not find the Disneyfied version of the story terribly appealing, but I would like to see the physical setting. Has anyone both read the book and seen the film? If so, would love to hear your thoughts!

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thunder on the right mary stewart 1Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart ~ 1957. This edition: Hodder Paperbacks (Coronet), 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-02219-1. 255 pages.

My rating: 4/10

Omigosh. This book. Words (almost) fail me. 110% gothic romance, and absolutely bizarre in plot and execution. Luckily I’ve been on something of a Mary Stewart binge recently, and this came along as book number six; if it was number one or two I doubt I would have had the heart to continue.

I try my hardest, in reviewing anything in the mystery-suspense line, to not include any spoilers, but, in this case, all bets are off. Consider yourself forewarned!

This one starts off promisingly enough. Jennifer Silver, 22-year-old daughter of the Bullen Professor of Music at Oxford, is ethereally lovely (of course!) and rather at loose ends, despite recent years at art school. She sits in the dining room of her hotel in the French Pyrenees, tucking into a most delectable-sounding repast. She is thrilled to be in France again – she has visited in the past – and is looking forward with anticipation to her planned reunion with her half-French older cousin, who, widowed not long after her marriage, is convalescing from a recent illness in a nearby convent. More than merely convalescing; Gillian has sought solace in religion, and is thinking of becoming a nun, much to Jennifer’s not-so-secret dismay. But something isn’t quite right in a larger sense, and Jennifer sits and mulls over her cousin’s situation with increasing unease. Why have her chatty letters suddenly stopped? Tomorrow Jennifer will be going to the Convent of Notre-Dame-des-Orages to meet Gillian, but she’s not quite sure what she’ll find. (Cue foreboding music. Oh, and a love theme, for here appears a prince on a white charger. Figuratively speaking. The real horse shows up later.)

For who should appear but a figure from Jennifer’s past. Up pops handsome Stephen Masefield, an old student of Professor Silver’s.  Jennifer has dallied with Stephen in Oxford days, and he has long cherished a secret passion for the lovely Jenny despite her mother’s brusque dismissal of his courtship, all unbeknownst to the innocent maiden. Stephen comes with an intriguing past, and is dashingly handsome despite his slight limp from an old war wound (this is all taking place post World War II, in the mid 1950s or thereabouts) as well as exceedingly talented, both in music and as a skilled amateur artist.

Lots of details, yes, I know. But every single one of them matters in the upcoming narrative, for this is an exceedingly busy story, chock full of details affecting details, and coincidences and lucky (or unlucky) juxtapositions of people and events. I’ll cut to the chase, if I may, and give the barest outline of the action to follow.

Jennifer goes to the convent, meets a sinister Spanish nun dressed in a silken habit and sporting a flashing ruby-encrusted cross, and is informed that her cousin was indeed in residence, but that she has died and is buried in the convent graveyard. Something about an automobile accident, and crawling up to the convent gates after midnight, and devoted nursing and a sudden decline… Jennifer is in shock and visits the grave, where a glimpse of a bouquet of gentians sets off a train of speculation in her mind. Perhaps Gillian is still alive, and a mystery woman is buried in her place…?!

Beware the nun! An older paperback cover which captures the mood so very well.

Beware the nun! An older paperback cover which captures the mood so very well.

The plot convolutes on its merry way, involving a rare form of colour blindness (Gillian would not have been able to identify gentians as her favourite flower – she cannot distinguish blue), a beautiful young novice who nursed Gillian, a stunningly gorgeous local youth dashing about on a wicked stallion, the aforementioned sinister Spanish nun, the extremely old, kind and blind Mother Superior who is unaware of the fact that the Spanish nun, her bursar, is filling the convent with war-looted treasures (solid gold fittings, altar pieces by El Greco, jewelled statues, etcetera), a local smuggler in cahoots with said nun, a vitally crucial letter found tucked behind a picture – this coincidence put me off the story early on – absolutely contrived! – midnight forays by everyone generally ending in eavesdropping on startling conversations, a mystery woman in a mountain cottage, multiple thunderstorms (“thunder on the right” – aha!), a landslide, a flash flood, a slender rock bridge over a ravine, the heroine’s habit of delicately fainting at crucial moments, Stephen’s multiple heroic accomplishments – mastering the wild stallion! hand-to-hand combat skills! great kissing! – on and on and on we go.

The girl in the mountain hut is Gillian; the little novice goes off with her handsome horseman; the evil nun and the smuggler meet their comeuppances; the woman buried in the nunnery garden is the criminal alluded to in casual conversation early in the story. Jennifer is passionately kissed not only by her dashing swain, but by the testosterone-drenched smuggler, who manages to keep his carnal urges on a high boil even while fleeing for his life when the predictable dénouement occurs.

Moments of lovely writing – Mary Stewart does excel at her descriptions – and snippets of humour here and there did not make up for the messy, too-busy, coincidence-heavy plot. Jennifer is the most unbelievable of all of the Mary Stewart heroines I’ve met so far – the others have been very likeable – and I found her utterly annoying. The whole thing was too full of heaving bosoms – can even a nun have a heaving bosom? Well, yes, apparently – and surging stallions and heavily gothic settings.  Too much!

I have been soothing myself with a return to sedate O. Douglas, and am now reading Eliza for Common with relief. Thunder on the Right has rattled me badly, coming as it did after Mary Stewart’s rather more excellent My Brother Michael, which I have yet to review. I liked that one a whole lot more.

Thunder on the Right was apparently the author’s least favourite of her novels, and I can see why. Here are her own words, courtesy of the excellent Mary Stewart Novels website:

From Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1, 1967

Ms. Stewart once claimed Thunder on the Right as her least favorite novel. “I detest that book. I’m ashamed of it, and I’d like to see it drowned beyond recovery. It’s overwritten. It was actually the second book I wrote, and for some strange reason I went overboard, splurged with adjectives, all colored purple.”

I’m glad I read it, though, if only to contrast with the rest of the author’s works. It is indeed interesting to see her development as a writer over the course of her career. I’m only read six of the novels so far, and I’m definitely seeing a pattern of evolution. Very interesting. I intend to continue to explore the vividly painted, action-packed worlds of Mary Stewart, though I may have to take a bit of a break to regain my equilibrium after this latest foray.

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wildfire at midnight paperback dj mary stewart 001Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart ~ 1956. This edition: Hodder, 1970. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-01945-X. 224 pages.

My rating: 6/10

From the dust jacket of the original edition, 1956:

Most people came to the Isle of Skye to climb the jagged peaks of Blaven or fish the many sparkling streams. Gianetta Brooke came to forget Nicholas Drury—the husband she had painfully divorced. The discovery that Nicholas numbered among the guests at the small inn was the first sign that hers was not to be a typical holiday . . .

Then Gianetta learned that on the treacherous slopes of Blaven, murder had been done . . . and although she had missed the first act of an eerie, unearthly crime, the murderer was to strike again and again before the finale was enacted on the mist-laden mountain—a finale that has Gianetta face-to-face with a madman.

My thought early on while reading Wildfire at Midnight, my fourth recent Mary Stewart read, was “Well here’s something a bit different!” This one is not so much a romance as an out-and-out suspense thriller/murder mystery. Not one, but three people meet their very unpleasant demises in this dark little tale of misplaced devotion. What romance is included is sketchy at best, and telegraphed broadly from very early on.

Beautiful London model Gianetta Drury – Janet, to her intimates – is feeling in need of a break from her busy life. It’s spring of 1953, and the city is getting ready for Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation ceremony, and, as the excitement builds, so does Janet’s stress. Her career is at its peak; she hobnobs with the rich and famous on a daily basis; life is a constant whirl – but all she really wants is to get away from it all, to relax in some country peace and quiet, far from those who recognize her lovely face.

So off she hies herself to the remote and beautiful Isle of Skye in Scotland, to what she thinks will be a restful retreat. Tea and scones by a glowing peat fire, gentle walks in the heather, gazing at the mountains in the mild Scottish mist…

Ha! You just know this isn’t going to work out as planned, especially when the first person Janet meets as she checks into her hotel is a prominent actress, one Marcia Maling, settled in complete with luxurious convertible and handsome chauffeur. An assortment of fishermen and amateur climbers are also in residence, including famous mountaineer Ronald Beagle, and, to top it off, who should wander in but Janet’s ex. Nicholas Drury, a celebrated author, is visiting Skye to gather local colour for his next bestseller. He is sulkily broody and exceedingly handsome, and Janet’s heart skips a beat when she sees him again, though both pretend to be strangers to each other for the benefit of their fellow guests.

Tension is in the air, and Janet is very tuned in to it, though she is shocked to discover that one of the reasons for the brittle atmosphere is the unsolved murder of a local teenager on her eighteenth birthday just a week or two earlier. The young woman was found with her throat slit on a roaring bonfire halfway up the looming local mountain, Blaven, and though there is a likely suspect, there has been no arrest. (Not yet.)

Two more gruesome murders are on the horizon, with every person in the hotel soon becoming suspect; Janet’s dreamy retreat is now a living nightmare. Who can she really trust? And why is Nicholas taunting her so constantly, and popping up when least expected?

As usual, the physical setting of the story is described with vivid detail. Another nice touch is the ongoing radio broadcasts of Coronation preparations and updates of the ongoing attempt to climb Mount Everest playing in the background; the mountaineers in the group are glued to the radio, and massive bonfire piles are being built to fire on Coronation eve…

Wildfire at Midnight - dust jacket illustration, first edition, 1956.

Wildfire at Midnight – dust jacket illustration, first edition, 1956. Isn’t this great? Much more mood-inducing and appropriate than the various depictions of the scantily clad heroine which most succeeding covers feature.

Here’s my summing-up opinion on Wildfire at Midnight.

While it started off well, and has its moments of deep appeal, the superficial characterizations of every single one of the characters – including our heroine – made this an ultimately less-than-completely-stellar read. The first murder was shocking; the second decidedly unexpected; and the third de trop – just too much to believe. (Plus I really liked that third victim!) And the heroine keeps wandering about in a downright silly manner, considering that there’s a diabolical killer at large. She wanders out alone, or with this gentleman or that into remote corners of the glen, just asking for something nasty to happen.

And it does.

The predictable final chase scene involves both a quivering bog and a craggy mountainside, plus bonus blinding mist. The unmasked murderer is totally creepy (and I guessed the identity correctly), but the far-fetched motive is tissue thin.

Well, acceptable reading for a drizzly October evening, and it was decidedly atmospheric throughout. A keeper, for sure, but of the “so bad it’s good” variety! Definitely dated, this very vintage one, but with some merits too, mostly regarding the fabulous depiction of place, and the real-life events playing out in the background, which become the most believable part of the fictional tale. I loved the image of the characters gathered ’round the radio, waiting for news of the Everest attempt, while their own safe little world is under threat from an unknown assassin!

And here’s a rather grand review, including an excerpt from the story:

Romantic Armchair Traveller Review: Wildfire at Midnight

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the ivy tree mary stewartThe Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart ~ 1961. This edition: Coronet, 1975. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-01115-7 319 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This was my third Mary Stewart romantic thriller read in the last few weeks, and it was perhaps my favourite to date. Where This Rough Magic (1964) was set in exotic Corfu and referenced the English theatre world, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Communist politics in Albania, and a passionately fast-developing love affair between the heroine and a brooding hero-type, and Airs Above the Ground (1965) was set in the Austrian Alps and concerned itself with a complicated plot involving a happily married heroine, her two male companions, and a group of circus performers, The Ivy Tree is a much more sedate and personality driven story, and much more concerned with psychology rather than straight-out action as in the other two tales.

In this tale of family and inheritance and underhand plotting, the reader is never quite sure who is telling the truth, and what is really going on. The threads of the story wind about this way and that until the tapestry takes shape and the true picture emerges near the end. Told (as are the other two stories) in first person narration by the key female character, we are not quite sure if she is indeed the heroine in the accepted sense, for her actions are unreliable and her inner dialogue frequently less than frank with the reader. And though there were occasional credibility gaps in this story – as in the others – by and large it was an intriguingly detailed mystery.

Here is the basic plot outline, from the flyleaf of a 1962 edition:

Mary Grey had come from Canada to the land of her forebears: Northumberland, where Hadrian built his wall nearly 2000 years ago. As she leaned against the sun-warmed stones, savoring the ordered, spare beauty of England’s northern fells, the silence was shattered by a single name hurled, as it were, like an epithet:

“ANNABEL!”

And there stood one of the angriest, most threatening  young men Mary had ever seen. His name was Connor Winslow, and from his spate of words Mary discovered that he thought she was his cousin–a girl supposedly dead these past eight years. Alive, she would be heiress to an inheritance Con determined to have for himself…

Thus begins the story of an impersonation fraught with the perils of treading present depths without the buoyancy of an innocent past. To it, Mrs. Stewart brings her remarkable ability to create atmosphere be it joyous, brooding, or terrifying. And with her acknowledged talent for characterization, she delineates sharply the savage, ruthless, half-sardonical Con; his drab half-sister, Lisa, firm only in her dedication to Con and his wishes; arrogant Matthew Windlow, a failing tyrant, by tyrant nonetheless where his family was concerned; the ebullient, sometimes rebellious Cousin Julie; and Adam Forrest, the reserved owner of neighboring Forrest Hall,  now a widower, but eight years before, inextricably tied to a hysterical, neurotic wife and tormented by his love for Annabel.

With admirable skill, Mary Stewart practices the full scale of uncertainty while developing a theme embellished with the rich overtones of atmosphere and characterization.

That’s the basic outline, but the story itself is even more complex than this summary would indicate. Though some of the characters – including the true love interest of the heroine – never received much more than a superficial characterization, many of the others were nicely portrayed, showing realistic complexities of good and bad, and delving into motivations, and justifying contradictory behaviours in a most believable way.

Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar was an obvious inspiration, and the author openly acknowledges that, giving the novel to her characters as a guidebook to their own planned deception; I enjoyed the parallels, as Brat Farrar is one of my favourite Teys (if there can be such a thing – I do love every single one of Josephine Tey’s too-few novels), and Stewart’s take-off of it was different enough to hold my interest.

I won’t say much else; this is a novel that rewards coming to it without too much foreknowledge of the crucial details of the plot.

The “what bugged me” bits were similar to the other Mary Stewarts I’ve just read: a too-convenient disposal of the “bad” character(s), with a rather too-rushed and too-neat conclusion. There were some fairly major holes in the story, and readerly questions left unanswered; I am thinking that one must just put up with this tendency of the author’s and enjoy the enjoyable bits regardless, but it does stop me from rating the books higher on my personal scale.

Last thought: well done. I will be reading this one again; I enjoyed it.

The Ivy Tree was read and reviewed for Mary Stewart Reading Week , September 15th to 21st, celebrating the author’s long career and her 97th birthday on September 17th, 2013. Mary Stewart Reading Week was initiated and hosted by Gudrun’s Tights.

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airs above the ground mary stewartAirs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart ~ 1965 . This edition: Mill-Morrow, 1965. Hardcover 286 pages.

My rating: 7/10

This was my second title tackled in honour of Mary Stewart Reading Week , September 15th to 21st, which celebrates the author’s long career and her 97th birthday on September 17th. (MSRW was conceived and hosted by Mary Stewart fan Anbolyn of the excellent book blog Gudrun’s Tights.)

Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal. The only reason I was having tea with her at Harrods on that wet Thursday afternoon was that when she rang me up she had been so insistent that it had been impossible to get out of; and besides, I was so depressed anyway that even tea with Carmel Lacy was preferable to sitting alone at home in a room that still seemed to be echoing with that last quarrel with Lewis. That I had been entirely in the right, and that Lewis had been insufferably, immovably, furiously in the wrong was no particular satisfaction, since he was now in Stockholm, and I was still her in London, when by rights we should have been lying on a beach together in the Italian sunshine, enjoying the first summer holiday we had been able to plan together since our honeymoon two years ago. The fact that it had rained almost without ceasing ever since he had gone hadn’t done anything to mitigate his offense; and when, on looking up “Other People’s Weather” in the Guardian each morning, I found Stockholm enjoying a permanent state of sunshine, and temperatures somewhere in the seventies, I was easily able to ignore reports of a wet, thundery August in southern Italy and concentrate steadily on Lewis’s sins and my own grievances…

So when definitely-silly-but-self-indulgently-manipulative Carmel, scenting trouble in Vanessa’s married paradise, drops a seemingly casual comment that she has just seen Lewis in a newsreel clip about a tragic circus fire in Austria, Vanessa is completely floored – Lewis is supposed to be in Sweden, and she has a properly postmarked note from him to prove it, dated the same day as the Austrian incident. She manages to save face by some on-the-fly fabricating, and when Carmel asks Vanessa to accompany her (Carmel’s) nineteen-year-old son Timothy on a flight to Vienna to visit with his father – the Lacys are divorced and not really on speaking terms, hence the difficulties in arranging the travels of their son – Vanessa decides to go along with the plan to find out just what Lewis is up to. Particularly when her own covert perusal of that newsreel shot shows Lewis with his arm around a very beautiful young girl…

It just so happens that Timothy’s visit to his father is not as it seems either, and when he and Vanessa bury their initial resentment at being saddled with each other, they swap information and decide to team up in order to track down the errant Lewis, and allow Timothy to pursue his primary goal in visiting Austria, which is actually to gain an entry of some sort into the stable area of the famed Spanish Riding School. For Timothy is horse-mad, and longs to forge a career among the Lipizzaners, while Vanessa just happens to be a qualified veterinarian, spinning her wheels more than a bit as she has, in era-correct style, put her promising personal career on indefinite hold due to her marriage to the enigmatic, oft-travelling Lewis.

Vanessa and Timothy form one of the most downright adorable platonic couples I’ve come across in my many years of reading; Mary Stewart is on a decidedly playful roll in this novel as she sends them on their bantering way together.

We also have a small family circus full of accomplished artistes, some fabulous horsemen and horsewomen – one of whom happens to be the girl in the newsreel footage, bitter wartime and personal histories, tragedy, intrigue, romance, hidden identities, mysterious packages, jewels (or is that “jewels”?), large quantities of cocaine, brooding mysterious Eastern Europeans, beautiful (and valuable) horses, struggling aristocrats, amazing alpine scenery (described in long-winded detail by our author), a castle, a cog railway, close calls beyond count, threats and violence and brandished pistols and REVENGE. (Am I missing anything?!)

I truly loved most of this unlikely tale, and in particular the three-way relationship between Vanessa and her two male companions. I loved that the heroine was married, and that the mutual affection and physical attraction between her and her husband was portrayed in such a positive way, though I didn’t love the lack of spousal communication from Lewis’s end. But this was redeemed by Vanessa’s forthright dealing with the situations she found herself in, and her cool head and steady hand throughout.

I found myself completely bemused by Lewis’s actual occupation; I ended the story with a great big question mark floating up there in the air above my head, but I waved it away because by that time it didn’t really matter. There was a completely unlikely and over-the-top (pun intended) chase scene across castle rooftops, with the good characters escaping death by mere centimetres and the bad guys meeting their inevitable comeuppance. Oh, and a twist on the maiden-on-the-railway-track scenario, with a suitably last-moment rescue. The horse bits were reasonably well-written, though the Great Big Equine Secret was easy to guess and exceedingly improbable; my willing suspension of disbelief bobbled seriously around that bit, and, along with the rooftop chase scene, knocked my rating down a few points.

All in all, a very diverting vintage read, showing its age throughout, but enjoyable nevertheless. This one will stay on the shelf, though I suspect quite some time will pass before I feel the urge to read it again.

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