Posts Tagged ‘Mary Stewart Reading Week – 2013’

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:


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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TThis Rough Magic Mary Stewart Coronet paperbackhis Rough Magic by Mary Stewart ~ 1964. This edition: Coronet, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-02202-7. 255 pages.

My rating: 6/10

I haven’t read Mary Stewart for absolutely years and years, and now I remember why. This book was so full of action and plot twists that it was positively exhausting! In a mostly good way, but by golly, I had to pay attention.

I have collected a number of Mary Stewart novels in the past few years, as part of the personal circulating library I maintain and continually add to for my housebound elderly mother, but for some reason I have not dipped into them myself, perhaps because I rather overdid it on them in my teen years, and somehow felt I had moved on.

The Mary Stewart Reading Week , September 15th to 21st, celebrating the author’s long career and her 97th birthday which is actually today, September 17th, has been planned and hosted by a fellow book blogger whose site I greatly enjoy, Anbolyn of the intriguingly named Gudrun’s Tights. I share so many of the same tastes as Anbolyn, I was thereby moved to give Mary Stewart another go in honour of this occasion. I’ve just finished This Rough Magic, am well started on Airs Above the Ground (early impression – excellent – I’m really loving this one), and expect to tackle The Ivy Tree next, and possibly Touch Not the Cat, if I can squeeze it into my travelling bag. We’re about to head out on a week-long driving adventure in our very small vintage sports car, so paperbacks are the order of the day, and TNTC is a hefty hardcover, so it might not be allowed.

So here is a quick rundown on This Rough Magic. The clock is ticking loudly this morning, and I need to soon be up and away from the computer. so I’ll see if I can keep it short and to the point. (I do tend to run on…) My husband is in the kitchen making waffles, a special treat though a rather complicated production – he is skilled at a very few particular items, excellent waffles being one of them – but is not the most efficient of cooks, so I have a bit of time. Let’s see what I can do.

A not much more than mediocre London actress, our heroine and first person narrator, Lucy Waring, is “resting” at her wealthy-by-marriage older sister’s villa on the Greek Island of Corfu. Basking in the sunshine and catching up on news with her beloved sister (who is, incidentally, happily very pregnant with her third child), the sting of the ignominious ending of Lucy’s first big theatrical role is fading fast. And there is a lot to catch up on. A neighbouring villa is temporary home to a certain Godfrey Manning, a wealthy world traveller, author and photographer, who is writing a book about Corfu, while the venerable and famous Julian Gale, a noted Shakespearian actor, is reclusively resident in the rather derelict Castello dei Fiori, accompanied by his son Max, an accomplished composer.

The first inkling that there may be troublesome events brewing to disturb Lucy’s peaceful holiday is when she takes a solitary swim in the bay, and has an initially terrifying encounter with a people-friendly dolphin. She makes the shore, realizes that the dolphin is merely trying to play, and ventures back into the water with him, when her joy at the dolphin’s advances turn to horror as she realizes that someone is shooting at it with a silenced rifle. Catching a glimpse of a figure in the woods above the bay, she storms up to confront the suspected gunman, only to be rudely rebuffed by Max Gale. He denies any knowledge of any shooting, and sneers at Lucy’s allegations, accusing her of being overly dramatic. She comes away feeling that she’s come off poorly in the encounter, which is depressing as she greatly admires Max’s father, and had rather wanted any encounters with the Gale family to be good ones.

The next dramatic thing that happens is the tragic loss at sea of her sister’s maid’s twin brother while out on a nighttime sail with the enigmatic Godfrey Manning, followed soon after by Lucy’s shocking discovery of a drowned body, which she at first thinks is the brother, but who turns out to be a local fisherman rumoured to be involved in the local side industry of smuggling to the nearby closed Communist country of Albania.

Ah, yes, for this is the 1960s, and Communism and the Cold War are at their full-blown peak; something one has to remember when considering the following plot twists and turns.

Lucy tenaciously goes on her way familiarizing herself with Corfu and meeting the locals. She makes friends with Sir Julian, and is casually courted rather by the über-self-confident Godfrey, but does not seem to be making much headway with the glowering and still-hostile Max.

Until, that is, a midnight encounter involving the dolphin, a fabulous diamond ring, and a passionate embrace (page 101) while hip-deep in the phosphorescent sea. Now we’re cooking with gas, as the saying goes, and the action really picks up.

Smugglers, Communist spies, murderers, counterfeit money, mad motorcycle rides, burning kisses, and secrets galore are all involved from here on in; the ending is shockingly explosive (literally) while the heroes and heroines escape relatively unscathed and the bad guys are suitably knocked down to size.

Wow! That was exhausting just to read. <Fanning myself with book.>

But here’s the kicker. Did I really like this book?

Parts of it, definitely. I loved the author’s intelligence and the offhand way she assumes her readers are as literate as she is; continual snippets of quotation pop up both in the chapter headings and throughout the narrative; I caught some and suspect there were others that flew by me. I liked the heroine’s matter-of-fact assessment of her own skills as an actress, and her blunt description of her not-quite-stellar career; I enjoyed her voice for the early part of the story, before she became embroiled in the inevitable romantic entanglements later on.  I enjoyed many of the author’s descriptive passages; she very obviously has experienced and/or intimately researched her setting.

But other parts, particularly towards the end as the suspense builds, I don’t like so much. We can see the passionate response to the brooding mystery man coming from a long, long way away; methinks the lady falls too fast and too hard; her previous self-assessment and obvious sophistication in the ways of the world make her impulsive abandonment of good sense hard to stomach.

The action sequences I found to be overworked and more than slightly unbelievable; the dolphin bits as well as the motorcycle ride and the subsequent cat-and-mouse escapades with the murderous criminal mastermind of the slightly implausible mystery. The whole Tempest connection is overworked (in my opinion) and played out beyond its initial appeal as a clever “hook”. The aging actor’s save-the-day performance was absolutely no surprise to me at all; I suspect that this would pop up at some point, and by golly, how right I was. The convenient demise of the bad guy was too convenient, tidying things up just a bit too suddenly and, if I dare say, too appropriately. The God-like hand of the author is very evident in the dénouement; she might as well have tied a bow on this one; it was decidedly wrapped up at the end! The whole political element continued to confuse me even after I reread key points – such as they were – I felt that it was sketchy all the way through.

I did however enjoy reading the story; it helped a lot to have undertaken it as part of a participatory event, and I will be interested to read others’ thoughts on This Rough Magic, if anyone chooses to read it for the Mary Stewart Reading Week. (Returning to add that I see a few others have indeed done so – excellent!) The good bits were very good; the other bits were acceptable if viewed through “I’m reading a vintage book” lenses; I can see why Mary Stewart is beloved of so many readers, even though I cannot count myself among one of her true fans, at least not quite yet. I am looking forward to reading more of her titles; I feel, after reading This Rough Magic, that the author’s work has more to offer than it at first appears.

Onward then, to Airs Above the Ground, and The Ivy Tree, my other two Mary Stewart Reading Week choices.

Oh – edited to add something – what a find! – several delicious illustrations from the Mary Stewart Novels BlogSpot. I found these when looking for an illustration of my particular copy’s cover; my book is who-knows-where, as I’ve been away from the computer and my desk for eight days, so I am trying to cheat on having to find it to scan it myself.


This Rough Magic Mary Stewart Illustration 1A Cover Literary Guild ReviewThis Rough Magic Mary Stewart Illustration 1This Rough Magic Mary Stewart Illustration 2This Rough Magic Mary Stewart Illustration 3

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