Posts Tagged ‘Mary Stewart’

The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart ~ 1971. This edition: Brockhampton Press, 1971. Illustrated by Shirley Hughes. Hardcover. ISBN: -340-15203-6. 127 pages.

In the interests of keeping caught up with my ACOB self-imposed committment, I’m going to try to zip off three quick book posts tonight, of absolutely dissimilar novels, so hold on to your hats.

All three books (this one, Out of the Deeps/The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham, Saint Jack by Paul Theroux) deserve the full scholarly treatment, but they’re not going to get it today – at least not from me.

Starting with the “easiest”, then. Here we go!

This juvenile adventure story from the romantic thriller writer Mary Stewart was her first published work for younger readers, and it is an absolute charmer.

The whole time I read this one (and it’s a quick read, maybe 2 hours, tops) all I could think of is what a fantastic read-aloud book it would be. It only needed a warm little body or two snuggled close to make it absolute heaven. This one is going on the extra-special save-for-eventual-grandkids shelf. If you don’t have a handy one that belongs to you around, it’s almost worth borrowing a small child for!

Poor Mary, indeed! Parents gone off to America for a month, older twin siblings happily off visiting friends, and Mary’s own much-anticipated stay with cousins-by-the-sea cancelled unexpectedly, our young protagonist is landed with an elderly aunt in the deepest depths of the country.

Great-Aunt Charlotte is kind as kind can be, but she’s mostly deaf and spends a lot of time napping, and her flustery lady-companion isn’t much of a kindred spirit to a 10-year-old girl either. The few local children of a similar age are away, so Mary is reduced to following the brusque (though kindly) gardener around, hindering him in his work as she tries to help. Nothing is going right; what a dismal summer this is turning into…

We all know what happens next, right?

Yes, Mary meets an unexpected friend. In this case, the friend turns out to be a small black cat with emerald-green eyes, who chums up in the most satisfactory fashion, finding his way into Mary’s room at night, purring his way into her heart.

Tib, as the gardener christens the cat, is a feline of purpose and initiative, and he promptly and firmly leads Mary into the woods, to a secluded copse of oak trees, where she finds the most wonderful thing she has ever seen. It’s a mysterious flower:

The leaves, set in stiff rosettes, were of a curious bluish-green, mottled like frogs, and above them on slender stems hung the flowers, clusters of graceful purple bells, whose throats were streaked with silver, and whose pistils, like long tongues, thrust out of the freaked throats in stabs of bright gold.

Mary knelt down on the fallen branch and gazed at the flowers, while beside her sat the little black cat waving his black tail, and watching her out of his green, green eyes.

Turns out that the flower has some interesting properties, related to the requirements of witches, and before she knows it Mary finds herself mounted on a disturbingly lively broomstick, whooshing through the clouds, Tib hanging on for dear life. Down they eventually come, to the gates of a large country house, all turrets and battlements and such. A large sign informs Mary that she has come to ENDOR COLLEGE, All Examinations Coached for by A Competent Staff of Fully-Qualified Witches…

Swept up by Headmistress Mumblechook, Mary tries and tries to explain that she really shouldn’t be there, but her explanation falls on deaf ears (or are they?) and she gets the grand tour befits a newly enrolled student.

Things turn forbodingly grimmer the deeper and deeper Mary gets into the situation, and, well, let’s leave it right there.

Let me just say that these witches aren’t of the benevolent white magic type, they are well and truly up to mischief, and Mary will need all the luck that comes her way in order to extricate herself from their grasp.

The grand finale chase scene is worthy of Mary Stewart at her action sequence best (which is very good indeed), and the ending is quite lovely, in that everyone gets what they deserve.

Though I had to dock a full point in my personal ratings system for an utter lack of discussion as to why the Endor College witches and wizards are up to the awful thing it is that they are up to – and my adult brain really wanted to know what that motivation was, though likely a young reader/listener wouldn’t care a jot – this one gets a happy 9/10.

I was inspired to bring this book down from the shelf where it has been sitting ever since its lucky acquisition a year or so ago at a library book sale by this post at There Will Be Books.

Grateful thanks to Karyn for the nudge. I had been waiting for the right time to read The Little Broomstick; it was on my radar for sure because I’d heard about the anime based on it just a few months ago, and I was startled and quite pleased to see one of Mary Stewart’s works in the spotlight – I have a deep fondness for her vintage for-adults thrillers – and I remember telling myself, “You’d better read that children’s book. Soon!”

Yes, indeed, it has indeed happened that this slight but engrossing tale has been picked up by Japanese anime Studio Ponoc, the new home of a number of ex-Studio Ghibli animators, and reworked into an action-adventure film titled Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

Three rousing cheers for Japanese readers of old English-language children’s books, for in recent years we have seen a number of these reimagined with respectful and clever transformation into a whole different art form, namely Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, The Secret World of Arriety (based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers), and Joan G. Robinson’s When Marnie Was There.

If you are in the B.C. lower mainland and are even the slightest bit tuned in to anime culture, I envy you greatly, as you will have a chance to watch Mary and the Witch’s Flower at the Vancouver International Film Festival in the coming week. (Subtitled trailer here, and English-dubbed trailer here.) And a treat it will no doubt be, whether or not you bring a child with you as your cover ploy!

 

 

 

 

 

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Prefacing this sure-to-be-rambling post with this information, for those of you who wonder what I’m actually talking about way down below. As different as can be in time periods and settings, but all at heart clinging to a similar traditional structure, that of the Gothic Romance Novel. The three books under discussion will be:

  • Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer
  • Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent
  • Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

All of these are velvety dark, thrillingly romantic (for the most part), highly predictable (ditto), and guiltily enjoyable tales.

Perhaps this won’t be the most sober-minded book discussion, which would indeed be fitting, for these books are not High Literature in any sense of the term, and are therefore free game for a little bit of mild mockery, all in good fun, because I did read them willingly and with general pleasure, though occasionally that pleasure was all about their fulfillment of stereotypical Gothic Romance Scenarios.

I have had recourse to our ever-handy Wikipedia to quickly define the main elements of a proper traditional gothic novel, and by applying the criteria to the books in question we can get a nice overview of how well the authors fulfilled the requirements of this assigned genre.

So, cribbing from the article and adding some of my own descriptive notes to those provided, we generally must have:

  • Virginal Maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past, and later discovered that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family.
  • Older, Foolish Woman – who often has charge of or advises the Virginal Maiden, or acts as an Awful Warning due to past errors of judgement, which Virginal Maiden may or may not take into consideration
  • Hero – who may or may not be misrepresented as The Villain for the earlier stages of the plot
  • Tyrant/villain – who may or may not be disguising his (her) True Evil Nature for the earlier stages of the plot. Usually male, occasionally female.
  • The Stupid Servant – acts as comic relief by asking seemingly stupid questions, transitions between scenes, brings news, messenger, moves plot forward. Sometimes takes on form of Humble Social Inferior or Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, well-meaning but ignorant of darker designs of Villain.
  • Ruffians – always under the secret (or not so secret, depending on if he is the Disguised or the Obvious species) control of the Villain
  • Clergy – always weak, usually evil (says Wikipedia, but in more modern gothics I have noticed that the Clergy figure is often absent, being replaced by a Doctor or Lawyer or other Figure of Social Authority, acting under the influence of the Villain)
  • The Setting – The setting of the Gothic Novel is a character in itself. The plot is usually set in a castle, an abbey, a monastery, or some other, usually religious edifice, and it is acknowledged that this building has secrets of its own.
  • And, if I may add to this list, The Secret. There is generally some Great Big Secret which the heroine – er, Virginal Maiden – either sets out to investigate or unwittingly stumbles upon. Sometimes (frequently) The Secret is, of course, that of her own mysterious past.
  • Also added by me: The Forced Marriage. Another common element I’ve noticed in my own perusal of gothics. So many times the heroine faces matrimonial peril, either by being forced to marry the Disguised Hero (who she then realizes she loves in Chapter Ten), or by a Weak Male Character under the control of the Villain, or by the Villain himself.

So, let’s see how these measure up. I’m going to present these in order from my least to most favourite.

Warning: There may well be some significant spoilers here and there, but as the plot twists are all highly predictable by anyone with the least bit of experience with the genre, I doubt if having these confirmed ahead of time will lessen one’s reading pleasure. 😉

Cousin Kate georgette heyer 1968Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer ~ 1968. This edition: The Bodley Head, 1968. Hardcover. 318 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

Front flyleaf blurb, Bodley Head edition:

Finding that her youthful appearance and the lack of accomplishments caused by a childhood spent following the drum prevent her from securing a position as governess, Kate Malvern, recently orphaned, gratefully accepts an invitation from her unknown aunt Minerva to make her home at Staplewood, the seat of Sir Timothy Broome, Minerva’s elderly and invalid husband.

On arrival at Staplewood, Kate finds herself in beautiful and luxurious surroundings, and is treated by her aunt with a kindness which is regarded by those best acquainted with Minerva with considerable surprise. At first grateful, Kate gradually becomes uneasy, and with the arrival on the scene of Sir Timothy’s nephew, Mr. Phillip Broome, the plot rapidly thickens. Minerva’s motive for bringing Kate to Staplewood is revealed, and her machinations are brought to a dramatic conclusion.

Okay, let’s see how Cousin Kate does on the Elements of Gothic Fiction scale.

  • Virginal Maiden – check! No secrets as to origin, as Kate is legitimately accepted as a family connection. She is an orphan, reasonably young (24), beautiful (“a flower-like countenance”), appears younger than her age, is sexually pure but well aware of the “facts of life” from her experience as a soldier’s daughter, and is definitely kind and sensitive, though she also fearless and well able to stand up for herself in socially awkward situations.  A most promising heroine.
  • Hero – check! Our Hero turns out to be one of the disguised ones, who operates under a cloud of misunderstanding engineered by the Villain, or, in this case, the Villainess.
  • Villainess – check! No mystery here, though it takes a while to reveal her true nature. It is, of course, suspiciously friendly Aunt Minerva.
  • Humble Social Inferior – Moving the plot along is Kate’s old nurse, Mrs Nidd, who bring’s Kate’s need of succour (she’s just been fired from her first job and has little prospect of finding another due to lack of training or experience) to Aunt Minerva, setting things in motion. Mrs Nidd reappears later in the story to aid Kate in unravelling The Secret.
  • Doctor – weak rather than deliberately evil, and under the complete influence of the Villainess, the Doctor plays here merely a supporting role
  • The Setting – It is 1817, mid-Regency. Most of the action occurs at a stately country home, Staplewood, with Aunt Minerva established at the centre of things controlling all of the domestic strings, and separate wings housing the frail Sir Timothy and the family son and heir, beautiful, erratically-mannered Torquil, who is under the fulltime care of the Doctor, for reasons no one is prepared to elaborate on. Mysteriously locked doors, male screams in the night, random shots being fired, a suicide-worthy lake, a lonely country setting leading to easy isolation of characters not wanted to be out in public circulation by the Villainess.
  • The Secret –  Insanity! Torquil’s. Kate has been tagged by the Villainess to be a suitable wife for her mentally unstable son. She (Kate) is to produce a son and heir to the Broome family fortune, after which Torquil will be put into ever-deeper seclusion as his insanity worsens (the Doctor is quite sure it will), and Kate will be allowed to discreetly seek consolation elsewhere.
  • The Forced Marriage – see The Secret.
  • Great Big Climax – Revelation of Secret! Murder! Suicide! Horror-stricken Virginal Maiden flees to arms of Hero! And once all of the details of The Secret are revealed, a blissful future is embarked upon via Glorious Holy Matrimony between the two who have suffered so many setbacks to the progress of their romance through initial misunderstanding and deliberate machinations of the Villainess, who has now had her ultimate comeuppance.

My verdict: While Cousin Kate had its appeal, and was quite nicely written and full of Heyer’s dependably engaging Regency slang. Kate is a likeable enough heroine, but the whole thing dragged on just too long for my interest to be sustained completely; the plot was desperately predictable, and the whole thing became rather depressing, what with its dependence on a mysterious insanity and the ditherings of all those concerned regarding the proper treatment of the sufferer.

The ending is rather brutal, as Heyer fatally disposes of two of her characters under horrific circumstances. The imagination of this reader was boggled regarding the possibility of a happy future for the heroine and hero with that sort of emotional baggage to deal with.

I rated Cousin Kate at 6 because of Heyer’s competent handling of her setting and the quality of her writing. Some serious themes (position of women/class distinctions/treatment of the mentally ill) were touched upon but never thoroughly examined – not really to be expected in this sort of light novel. But for a light novel it had some desperately dark strands.

Hard to classify, really. I know I said “boring” in the header, and that seems to be my ultimate feeling. Rather flat. Heyer could do much better.

tregaron's daughter madeleine brent 1971 001Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent ~ 1971. This edition: Doubleday, 1971. Hardcover. 251 pages.

My rating: 7/10. I bumped it down just a bit because of the inclusion of Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity, a plot strand which I found exceedingly annoying for some reason. (Perhaps because a similar character plays a major role in Heyer’s Cousin Kate?)

Flyleaf says:

Excitement, drama and suspense were only part of Cadi Tregaron’s new life. It had been a sunny afternoon when she glanced from the cliff where she sat reading and saw below her in the sea a sight that would change her life.

Set in England and Italy in 1910, this is the story of a young English girl who by accident starts to unravel the unknown elements in her grandmother’s past and is brought by the mystery to the faraway city of Venice. There, among the gondolas and canals, she slowly comes to comprehend the meaning of two strange and puzzling dreams – dreams that seem to hold the an eerie and menacing prophecy of the future.

Elements of Gothic Fiction included:

  • Virginal Maiden – check! Our heroine, Caterina (Cadi), daughter of a half-Italian mother and sturdy Cornish fisherman father, is young (late teens), beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And (spoiler alert!) she does turn out to be the descendent of the Italian nobility. No doubt because of this innate blue blood, our heroine has just naturally developed far beyond the expectations of her humble place in the world. Her language is surprisingly upper class (due to the convenient society of a cultured retired governess in the neighbourhood, who has taken the bright young Cadi under her tutorial wing), and she is fluent in Italian (learned from her grandmother), which comes in handy later. And she starts the story off as a half orphan, mother dead some years (fell off a cliff with grandmother in a tragic accident – sob!) and loses her father as well soon after we enter the story, which precipitates the now-fully-orphaned Cadi into the next stage of her saga.
  • Hero – check! This one is the conflicted type, and is disguised (occasionally deliberately) as a villain. Classically gothic  introduction of hero and heroine involving heroine being pulled up onto horse and forced to cling closely to rock-hard-muscled hero as they gallop to rescue of hero’s uncle who is caught in a dangerous current in his borrowed sailboat. (This is the life-changing thing which Cadi saw from the cliff.) Bonus first-meeting episode: as Cadi, her father, and the hero row out to the rescue, the bodice of Cadi’s dress rips, leaving her lily-white skin exposed in a rather delicate area, and causing the hero to take a deep breath and force his gaze away, manfully resisting the surge of testosterone this incident inspires. Predictably, hero’s taciturn silence is misunderstood by heroine – “He thinks I am below his notice!” Oh, no, darling, that ain’t it.
  • Villain – check!  Disguised variety. Cadi’s Italian relation, Count Chiavelli, who is surprisingly warm and welcoming to the little English chit who is apparently going to bump him from both his title and his fortune – unless, of course, she can be enticed into a marriage with the Count’s weak-natured son – shows another side to his nature as this plan fails to advance.
  • Hero’s Sidekick – not at all stupid, though a slight social inferior, the Sidekick keeps things moving by his unexplained presence at key points of the saga. He is eventually assisted in his efforts by Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, as they join forces to assist Hero in rescue of Virginal Maiden from the Villain’s foul clutches.
  • Ruffians – check! The Villain has a full complement of brutish henchmen, but as bad guys in gothic novels are always slightly slower (and much more stupid) than good guys, these particular ruffians are continually foiled by the Hero, Sidekick and Maiden.
  • Lawyers – These People of Social Authority – we have an English and an Italian version – are in general full of good intentions and quite helpful to Heroine, though they are completely hoodwinked by the Villain. I would like to put forward that a too-trusting lawyer = weakness, so this element is included, albeit in a very minor role.
  • The Forced Marriage – The Virgin is pressured to marry the Villain’s weak-willed son, in order for the Villain to get his hands on the fortune the Virgin is coming in for, and also to keep the title in the family.
  • The Setting – Gorgeous settings, full points for those. We start out in a humble cottage in a little Cornish fishing village – towering sea cliffs above it, treacherous currents swirling offshore – progress to turn-of-the-century London as the heroine is adopted by the beneficent and wealthy family whose patriarch she helped save back in chapter one, and end up in Italy in a gloomy Venetian palazzo, with a final nighttime chase scene by boat through mist-shrouded canals.
  • The Secret – Hmmm, aside from the confusion around the true nature of the Hero-disguised-as-Villain, the only other secret of major import was that Granny was almost murdered by the Villain’s sister, and that honestly came as no surprise, being telegraphed strongly right from chapter one. Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity was also something of an obvious twist, and quite wonderfully similar to the same figure as depicted in Cousin Kate. (Do we need to add him to our list of shared elements?)

My verdict: A better-than-average modern gothic, and an excellent first-novel-in-the-genre by – drumroll! – a male author writing under a female pseudonym.

For “Madeleine Brent” was actually Peter O’Donnell, British mystery novel and comic strip writer, and creator of the pop culture character Modesty Blaise.

O’Donnell’s publisher, Ernest Hecht of Souvenir Press, pleased by the success of O’Donnell’s thrillers, asked his author to try his hand at writing gothics under a female pseudonym. The Madeline Brent novels were a decided success, and Peter O’Donnell eventually wrote nine. All are set in the Victorian or immediately post-Victorian era, and feature young women in exotic locations seeking the truth about their identity. O’Donnell’s authorship was kept secret until after the publication of the last one, Golden Urchin (featuring a Caucasian girl raised in isolation from mainstream society among Australian Aborigines), in 1986.

An interesting side-note, this revelation of the gender of the author, and one which sheds some light on the structure of the Tregaron’s Daughter. Do I dedict a technically-minded male slant in – just one example – the inclusion of the details about construction of gondolas which allow them to be operated from one side by a single person?

Great details in the setting throughout, and the action was well maintained. The plot was (predictably) groaningly predictable, but my interest was held despite the lack of surprises. Good job, Mr. O’Donnell!

nine coaches waiting by mary stewart 1958 001Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart ~ 1958. This edition: Coronet, 1973. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-01439-3. 317 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Now this is how you write a gothic! Mary Stewart, after her previous year’s rather dire first attempt, 1957’s Thunder on the Right, pulls up her authorial socks and takes another run at the genre, this time succeeding brilliantly.

Chicago Review Press blurb:

A governess in a French château encounters an apparent plot against her young charge’s life in this unforgettably haunting and beautifully written suspense novel. When lovely Linda Martin first arrives at Château Valmy as an English governess to the nine-year-old Count Philippe de Valmy, the opulence and history surrounding her seems like a wondrous, ecstatic dream. But a palpable terror is crouching in the shadows. Philippe’s uncle, Leon de Valmy, is the epitome of charm, yet dynamic and arrogant—his paralysis little hindrance as he moves noiselessly in his wheelchair from room to room. Only his son Raoul, a handsome, sardonic man who drives himself and his car with equally reckless abandon, seems able to stand up to him. To Linda, Raoul is an enigma—though irresistibly attracted to him, she senses some dark twist in his nature. When an accident deep in the woods nearly kills Linda’s innocent charge, she begins to wonder if someone has deadly plans for the young count.

Applying the Gothic Fiction checklist yields some promising results:

  • Virginal Maiden – Check! Our heroine Linda is indeed young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And orphaned, too, which should really be one of the traits listed alongside young, beautiful, etc. etc. etc. No mysterious past, unless one counts Linda’s own concealment of her French heritage in order to pass for a strictly-English governess as required by her new employer.
  • Older Woman – Check! Elegant Madame de Valmy, who acts as an extra set of eyes and legs for her wheelchair-bound spouse, brings Linda into the household and complicates the plot by her alternating moments of warm we’re-all-women-here-together friendliness and cold putting-the-help-in-her-place slap-downs to our heroine.
  • Hero – Check! We actually have a choice of two Heroes, either or both possibly of the disguised variety, and in the interests of not spoiling the ending for those of you who haven’t read this, I will not say any more. Just that both are perfectly perfect for their chosen roles, and I was up in the air guessing as to which one was going to be the ultimate winner of the lovely Linda’s heart.
  • Villain – Check! The debauched old nobleman now confined to his wheelchair, of course. And he is masterful at disguising his True Evil Nature, though our heroine catches a disturbing gleam in his eye when he looks at his hapless nephew, the young Heir to the Family Fortune who has tied up the riches which the Villain would like to further his own ambitions.
  • The Servants – Linda finds herself associating with several useful servant-figures who fill her in on all the gossip and aid in her attempts to discover why her young charge, The Endangered Heir, is having so many close brushes with death. We have a chatty English housekeeper, who came to France some decades ago, and a sprightly local maid who has rather tragically (but usefully, as he drops some hints which can then be related to the heroine) fallen in love with the Wicked Henchman.
  • Wicked Henchman – One is indeed in residence, and he is secretly under the control of the Villain.
  • The Setting –  Time: The early 1950s. Place: A vast French château, isolated from all neighbours and tucked away in its own private forest among the craggy hills of the High Savoy in France. A steep, narrow, twisting road leads to the château, ideal for those sorts of engineered “accidents” where one’s automobile brakes unexpectedly fail, or where a pedestrian can be “inadvertently” run down on a one-lane bridge over a rushing torrent.
  • The Secret – How far will someone go out of personal and family pride, and for love for a piece of land?

This is one of the very best of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels. Decidedly well written, with abundant clever humour, and an ongoing literary thread as revealed in the title, for the Nine Coaches Waiting reference comes from a rather obscure Renaissance play by Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger’s Tragedy, in which a poor but pure and beautiful young woman is tempted with the luxuries of palace life to yield up her virtue.

The parallels between the Tourneur scenario and the Mary Stewart gothic are not particularly apt, but as a poet’s daughter herself (did I mention that bit? – I don’t think I did) our heroine in the novel is of course a highly imaginative (and literate) type, and the snippets of the play included by Mary Stewart are most intriguing and set the mood of rushed passion and moral unease very well indeed.

Oh, think upon the pleasure of the palace!
Secured ease and state! The stirring meats
Ready to move out of the dishes, that e’en now
Quicken when they are eaten…
Banquets abroad by torchlight! music! sports!
Nine coaches waiting – hurry – hurry – hurry –
Ay, to the devil…

My verdict: Hands down, Nine Coaches Waiting was the best of these three novels, but they all had their moments, and are all nice diversions for those times when one doesn’t want to think too hard, and wishes to recapture those long-ago (for many of us – I know a number of my regular readers are my generational compatriots) days of teenage summer reading, wrapped up in these darkly sensuous – but really quite chaste, kisses being as far as our heroines go – gloriously suspenseful, absolutely predictable romances.

(Ha! Grammar police, sort out that last paragraph. I dare you! It boggles me, rather, but I will let it stand, as a challenge to those of you who would perhaps like to dissect it and see of it actually works.) 😉

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the gabriel hounds coronet mary stewartThe Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart ~ 1967. This edition: Coronet, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-04353-9. 256 pages.

Oh. My. Goodness. This was utterly over-the-top, and if it had been written by anyone lesser (say Phyllis A. Whitney) I would have savagely panned it. But I’ve now embraced this author fully, and therefore completely forgave her the bizarre plot and the very weird and unlikely “drugging” scenes. (And the slightly ick-inducing cousinly love.)

Drum roll, please (or you may substitute the snarl of an accelerating Porsche engine here) …

My rating: 9.5/10

Loved it.

Okay, this isn’t even going to be a “proper” review, because I want you to come to it with no idea of where the plot would go, like I did. I will instead throw out these teasers. This story contains:

  • A lovely, unapologetically wealthy, 22-year-old sophisticated world traveller as the heroine.
  • An eccentric old lady who has completely channeled Lady Hester Stanhope and has created her own legend in a decaying Lebanese castle.
  • A ne’er-do-well young Englishman, handsome and intelligent but fatally weak-willed, who has gotten into a situation very much over his head; perks being the privilege of enjoying the favours of a dusky local maiden and galloping about the countryside on a beautiful Arab horse, accompanied by two gorgeous saluki hounds.
  • A scene in which the heroine unwittingly (???) smokes three “marihuana” cigarettes and only succumbs to their “self-will erasing effect” until the end of the third one, after which she is unable to walk and is carried away giggling.
  • A dastardly villain who eventually confesses absolutely EVERYTHING in a long, rambling monologue.
  • A handsome young man who can scale steep cliffs (and crumbling castle walls) without benefit of climbing gear, and who (bonus feature!) drives a white Porsche 911 S with utter aplomb and finesse.
  • Oh, and a fabulously unique and valuable ruby ring, which no one of the evil-doers seems to be able to recognize for what it is. (Among other priceless heirlooms which they casually dismiss and bundle away as “junk”. Hmmm, not quite as sophisticated as all that, then, these out-for-the-main-chance types.)

There. How can one resist all of that? And there’s more. Oh yes, much, much more!

Enjoy!

Couldn't find a white Porsche 911 S, but here's a 1966 in an elegant shade of sand, suitably posed against a Mediterranean-looking setting. How'd you like to tootle about the Levant driving this?

Couldn’t find a white 1966 Porsche 911 S, but here’s one in an elegant shade of cream, suitably posed against a Mediterranean-looking setting. How’d you like to tootle about the Levant driving this?

 

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mary stewart

Lady Mary Florence Elinor Stewart

September 17, 1916 – May 9, 2014

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Mary Stewart Obituaries – May 15, 2014

The Guardian and The Telegraph

This saddens me greatly, even though the announcement of the death of a woman of 97 is not to be unexpected.

Mary Stewart was a writer of great sensitivity to detail and abundant good humour; in the few short years I have been “tuned in” to her I have received immense pleasure from her books, and I am most definitely not alone.

Two of her books currently sit here on my desk waiting for their reviews, which will, when written, be enthusiastically favourable. They are Madam Will You Talk? and Nine Coaches Waiting, Mary Stewart’s first and fourth “romantic thrillers”, and alongside My Brother Michael and The Ivy Tree, well and away my stand-out favourites of the thirteen of her twenty-four books I have so far read. She is one of those writers whose work I now approach with great anticipation, opening each new-to-me book with a mind completely open to the adventure about to unfold. Comfort reading, to be sure – utterly perfect for taking one out of the troubles and travails of one’s here-and-now and into another place and time – and no bad thing.

Occasionally Mary Stewart causes me to raise a cynical eyebrow at her heroines’ unlikely escapes from certain death – what I personally term the “scrambling-across-precipitous-chateau-roofs-while-dodging-a-professional-assassin’s-bullets-and-not-losing-one’s-high-heels-or-irretrievably-ruining-one’s-favourite-leaf-green-linen-sheath-dress” school of literature – but I always forgive these, because I’ve become (mostly) reconciled to “the formula” – such as it is! –  and the majority of her writing is extremely intelligent, not to mention often poignant (consider all those tragically bereaved protagonists), usually humorous, and, occasionally, rather darkly sophisticated.

In her own words:

“Perhaps the commonest question of all is: ‘I suppose you have to have had all the experiences you describe?’ Considering the kind of thing that commonly befalls the heroines of my books, this always startles me a little. What sort of life do people imagine that I lead? The answer to that, of course, is that the word “imagine” means nothing to them, and to them one can hardly start explaining how imagination allows a writer to describe vividly something he has never done or seen. I personally have never been threatened with a gun while driving a racing Mercedes at ninety miles an hour. I have never been hunted with a fish-spear off the coast of Crete. I have never even been alone with a homicidal maniac on a Scottish mountainside. But I think I know how it would feel if I were. The place for truth is not in the facts of a novel; it is in the feelings.”

Literary Guild Review, August 1964

and

“[I] take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal everyday people with normal everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not ‘heroic’ in the conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary with great physical bravery, what they held to be right.”

“The story comes first and is served first…These novels are light, fast-moving stories which are meant to give pleasure, and where the bees in the writer’s bonnet are kept buzzing very softly indeed. I am first and foremost a teller of tales, but I am also a serious-minded woman who accepts the responsibilities of her job, and that job, if I am to be true to what is in me, is to say with every voice at my command: ‘We must love and imitate the beautiful and the good.'”

“Teller of Tales,” in The Writer, Vol. 83, No. 5, May 1970

I am deeply indebted to those of my online book friends who encouraged me to more deeply investigate Mary Stewart these past few years, calling me out when I dismissively referred to her as “just one of those romance writers.” Their united enthusiasm made me take a closer look, and for that I am most humbly grateful.

Thank you, Mary Stewart, for the pleasure of your story-telling, and for the care and craftsmanship you invested in your work.

Rest in peace.

 

 

 

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rose cottage mary stewartRose Cottage by Mary Stewart ~ 1997. This edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-340-69560-9. 234 pages.

My rating: Honestly, all I want to give is a 4.5/10, upped to a 5 because it is Mary Stewart, and I will be looking for a copy to purchase and add to my collection of gentle books maintained for my mother’s perusal.

I feel absolutely rotten giving this low of a rating to a writer I have come to greatly enjoy, but it is an honest assessment of my reading experience. Rose Cottage is indeed a lovely story, a nostalgic journey into the past, and I do believe that the author meant it to reflect her own pleasant memories, dedicated as it is

To the gentle shades of Henry, George, Patsy, Nip, Rosy, Maudie and Muffin, and all the other friends whom I meet again in my stroll down Memory Lane.

But it was vaguely unsatisfying, and a bit too – dare I say it – mild, with an anticlimactic happy ending and love and flowers and reconciliatory kisses all round and even a kitten.

And how could one not love a kitten? Well, in this case, the kitten felt superfluous, the one adorable straw which caused this particular camel to sag at the knees and subsequently dock several points off the rating scale. Do I feel like a big old meanie discounting the kitten? Oh, yes, I do indeed. But I can’t, in all honesty, recant. Sorry, George-the-kitten.

And sorry, Mary Stewart. I’ve come to admire you greatly these past few months as I read my way through a selection of your novels. But Rose Cottage, though a sweet thing in its own way, is not representative of your work at its peak. It’s a step down and back, a lessening-off, a gentle coda to round off your life-long symphony of written words.

Looking back down the vista of years, Kathy (Kate) Herrick reminisces about the summer of 1947, when her life took an abrupt turn.

Kate was brought up in a tiny thatched cottage – Rose Cottage – attached to the estate where her mother (Lilias) and grandmother were employed as maid and cook. Kate’s mother lost her position when it was discovered that she had become pregnant; Kate has never been told who her unknown father is. Her grandfather dies, and sternly religious Aunt Betsy comes to stay. Aunt Betsy’s bitter disapproval of Kate’s mother’s “fall” results in Lilias leaving for parts unknown when Kate is only six. Some time later word comes that Lilias has been killed in a bus accident; Kate is effectively left an orphan.

Kate grows up in an atmosphere of combined love (Gran) and puritan repression (Aunt Betsy), and, when the war comes, it is not as much a break as it could be when Kate moves away, and then falls in love and marries a bomber pilot. Their short marriage is happy, but ends tragically when her husband is killed in action. Kate takes this in stride in her quiet way, and goes on to keep herself occupied with an interesting job in a plant nursery, though she has been left well-provided for in her late husband’s will.

Then, out of the blue, Kate gets an urgent phone call. Gran has been ill; she has something important she needs Kate to look after for her. Can Kate please come to Scotland, where Gran’s employers have migrated due to the requisition of their English house during the war, and hear what it’s all about?

Aunt Betsy has since died, and Gran’s old home, Rose Cottage, is due to be renovated and sold, but all of Gran’s things are still there. Could Kate please go and pack up Gran’s furniture and small treasures, including the family’s personal papers and the bits of sentimental jewelry and keepsakes hidden in a small wall safe?

So off Kate goes to her childhood home, where she immediately discovers that there has been a recent intruder. The wall safe, which was papered over and known only to household intimates, has been opened, and the contents are gone. Now who would ever have known the safe was there? And what did it really contain?!

Luckily one of Kate’s old school friends, handsome, still-bachelor Davey Pascoe, is more than happy to renew acquaintance with pretty Kate, and to help her solve the mystery.

Many worrisome coincidences and much foreboding evaporate into a purely domestic situation with a prosaically reasonable explanation, and everything is tied up very tidily indeed by the last page. Definitely a feel-good sort of read, a very meek and tame adventure despite the potential of the early events to be worked into something much more melodramatic.

I can’t help but wish there had been some more dramatic developments, even though those sorts of plot twists in Mary Stewart’s earlier novels sometimes made me roll my eyes with readerly disbelief. But I’ve become used to this sort of thing from this author, and her stepping away from drama left me feeling surprisingly let down.

Still and all, a nicely written and completely sweet story. One to give to one’s own granny for gentle entertainment over a nice cup of tea, if one’s relative is of the type to enjoy a non-challenging sort of tale with a blissfully happy ending.

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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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