Posts Tagged ‘Romance’

the gilded ladder laura conway hebe elsna 001The Gilded Ladder by Laura Conway ~ 1945. This edition: Collins, 1970. Originally published under author’s name Hebe Elsna. Hardcover. ISBN: 00-233272-8. 159 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Found recently among my mother’s stored-away books was this mildly engaging relationship novel. (One can’t really slot it neatly into the romance category as it has larger ambitions, and the love affairs are off on the sidelines as compared to the niece-aunt partnership at the centre of the drama.)

It is just good enough to get a pass from me, though I doubt it will be high on the re-read list. A keeper, I think, though one for the bottom shelf. It pleasantly helped while away the time I spent in the orthodontist’s waiting room yesterday while my son was getting his braces tightened up a few more notches.

Young Lucy Erskine, ten years old in 1888 when this novel opens, is slightly in awe of her Aunt Madelon. Lucy’s mother is dead; her father’s new wife has produced two step-siblings, and Lucy feels rather out of things and appreciates the occasional attention she receives from her father’s rather glamorous unmarried sister who resides in a small suite of antique-furnished rooms in the Erskine family home.

Lucy has a small but genuine talent for music, both for playing the piano and for composing original little melodies, which Madelon notices and files away for future reference as a trait worthy of further encouragement. Madelon herself is fully occupied with hoisting herself up on the social scale – the “gilded ladder” of the title – and she gains each rung by strenuous though hidden exertions and more than a little single-minded plotting.

In Lucy’s tenth summer, all are agog at the upcoming marriage of Madelon’s old school chum, Lady Pamela, to a wealthy young man who cherishes an altruistic interest in slum projects. Lady Pamela hesitates at the thought of David’s plans to turn the major part of their prospective home into a convalescent hospital for ailing factory girls and as Pamela momentarily bobbles, Madelon slinks in and scoops away the fiancé. Marrying in haste, the two decamp on a honeymoon in France, but tragedy strikes and David is killed in a railway accident, leaving Madelon a devastated widow, albeit an exceedingly wealthy one.

Back then to the Erskine family home, where yet more tragedy has occurred, for Lucy’s father has suddenly died. Bereft Madelon, looking about for a new interest to assuage her grief, offers to give a home to young Lucy, and our story is off and running.

Madelon is truly fond of her niece, but can’t resist speculating about the possibilities of Lucy’s mild accomplishments as a minor musical prodigy to gain entry into noble drawing rooms. Tea for auntie, and a command performance from pretty little Lucy is the unspoken “deal” Madelon makes with her acquaintances in the social strata directly above her own, for Madelon’s new wealth, and, ironically, her past friendship with Lady Pamela, have given her a renewed taste for the joys of class climbing.

The novel wends on its way following Madelon’s steady social progress, and detailing Lucy’s growing awareness of her aunt’s manipulative ways, which Lucy starts to quietly confound when they touch upon herself. Lucy’s growing self-awareness and her rather clever provisioning for an life independent of her aunt’s control were rather admirable and renewed my interest in the plot, which had started to flag just a little.

This is a shortish novel, so things do keep moving at a respectable pace right up until the last chapter, where Lucy’s love affair, originally sabotaged by jealous Madelon’s manipulations, promises to finally come out all right. Madelon herself gets a brutally permanent comeuppance: she perishes rather dramatically just as she reaches the pinnacle of her social ambitions.

More irony here, for, as the author delicately informs us, Madelon’s bitterly hard-won ascent up the social scale is about to be rendered obsolete, as mere wealth alone is now becoming the golden ticket to social status. Madelon was born a generation too early; her long-sought-for prize is merely gilded base metal, and her tragedy is only appreciated by Lucy, who has loved her manipulative aunt for the good qualities of her personality, and by Lady Pamela, who has forgiven Madelon for the long-ago treachery of the stolen husband-to-be.

The writing is far from stellar, being rather pedestrian, more tell than show, full of awkwardly-written dialogue from the lower-class characters, and with the characters remaining at arm’s length from the reader. Despite the flaws, it was well-paced and just good enough to hold my interest, though as the climax of the story approached the strands of plot were increasingly predictable. No surprises there, but I have encountered much worse in some of the “bestsellers” of our present day (Rosemary Pilcher, your name springs to mind), and it was a mostly painless reading experience, though I cringed at the pat predictability of the last few pages.

Though The Gilded Ladder is decidedly a formula story, it is a well-polished one. A search of the internet to find out more about the author yielded little in the way of biographical insight, but it did produce some rather startling information.

Laura Conway was one of the pseudonyms of the terrifically prolific Dorothy Phoebe Ansle, who published, between 1928 and 1982, something like one hundred (!) popular novels under a variety of names, including Hebe Elsna, Vicky Lancaster and Lyndon Snow.

A long list appears on the Fantastic Fiction – Hebe Elsna web page, and the titles are surprisingly intriguing. Now I don’t recommend you rush out and acquire any of these. If The Gilded Ladder is a fair example of the author’s output then it is a very average sort of casual romantic fiction aimed at the housewife market (forgive my using that phrase – it’s not meant to be derogatory of actual housewives, of whom I myself am one, merely descriptive of a certain cliché) and certainly not “literary”.

But don’t some of these sound quite fascinating in an “Oops, I didn’t do the dishes as I was too wrapped up in my latest dime novel” sort of way?

What could This Clay Suburb concern? What is a Receipt for Hardness? Is it really true that Women Always Forgive? What happened The First Week of September? Are Marks Upon the Snow as sinister as they sound?

I sadly suspect that the titles may be the best part of many of these…

Child of Passion (1928) The Third Wife (1928) Sweeter Unpossessed (1929) Study of Sara (1930) We are the Pilgrims (1931) Upturned Palms (1933) Half Sisters (1934) Women Always Forgive (1934) Receipt for Hardness (1935) Uncertain Lover (1935) Crista Moon (1936) You Never Knew (1936) Brief Heroine (1937) People Are So Respectable (1937) Like Summer Brave (1938) Strait-Jacket (1938) This Clay Suburb (1938) The Wedding Took Place (1939) The First Week in September (1940) Everyone Loves Lorraine (1941) Lady Misjudged (1941) None Can Return (1942) Our Little Life (1942) See my Shining Palace (1942) No Fields of Amaranth (1943) Young and Broke (1943) The Happiest Year (1944) I Have Lived To-Day (1944) Echo from Afar (1945) The Gilded Ladder (1945) Cafeteria (1946) Clemency Page (1947) The Dream and the World (1947) All Visitors Ashore (1948) Midnight Matinee (1949) The Soul of Mary Olivane (1949) The Door Between (1950) No Shallow Stream (1950) Happy Birthday to You (1951) The Convert (1952) A Day of Grace (1952) Gail Talbot (1953) A Girl Disappears (1953) Catherine of Braganza (1954) Consider These Women (1954) A Shade of Darkness (1954) The Sweet Lost Years (1955) I Bequeath (1956) Strange Visitor (1956) The Marrying Kind (1957) My Dear Lady (1957) The Gay Unfortunate (1958) Mrs. Melbourne (1958) The Younger Miss Nightingale (1959) Marks Upon The Snow (1960) Time Is – Time Was (1960) The Little Goddess (1961) Lonely Dreamer (1961) Vicky (1961) Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1962) Take Pity Upon Youth (1962) A House Called Pleasance (1963) Minstrel’s Court (1963) Unwanted Wife (1963) Too Well Beloved (1964) The Undying Past (1964) The Brimming Cup (1965) The China Princess (1965) Saxon’s Folly (1966) The Queen’s Ward (1967) The Wise Virgin (1967) Gallant Lady (1968) Heir of Garlands (1968) The Abbot’s House (1969) Pursuit of Pleasure (1969) The Mask of Comedy (1970) Sing for Your Supper (1970) Take Heed of Loving Me (1970) The Love Match (1971) The King’s Bastard (1971) Prelude for Two Queens (1972) Elusive Crown (1973) Mary Olivane (1973) The Cherished Ones (1974) Eldest Daughter (1974) Distant Landscape (1975) Link in the Chain (1975) Cast a Long Shadow (1976) Family Duel (1979) Bid Time Return (1979) Long Years of Loving (1981) Red Headed Bastard (1981) Heiress Presumptive (1981) My Lover – The King (1982)

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the rosie project graeme simsionThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion ~ 2013. This edition: Harper Collins, 2013. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-44342-266-6. 329 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Aw, how sweet!

A charming beach read of a book which felt rather odd for a Canadian snow-filled January, but then I twigged that it was set in Melbourne, Australia (a reference to a character’s skimpy dress being perfect for “hot January evenings” making me sit up and pay attention) and it all fell into place.

An unusual narrator, university genetics professor Don, tells of his hyper-scheduled life, and how it all changed when he decided to locate a suitable life-partner by undertaking the questionnaire-based Wife Project in order to pre-screen likely prospects. A friend sets him up with a certain “Rosie” as something of a cruel joke; she fails the questionnaire on all counts, but even as he dismisses her from his list of potential partners, she interests him in a number of other ways.

Do I really need to go on? This book is completely stereotypical on so many counts, up to and including Don’s reinvention of himself to fit the presumed requirements of the woman he loves, and her teary-eyed insistence (after the fact) that the original him was the one she fell in love with.

Total chick flick stuff, and I thought all the way through what a perfect Hollywood romantic comedy this thing would be, which turned out to be the case – it was originally written as a screenplay. So no points for catching that.

But it works. It’s very funny, and cute and sweet and adorable and very happy-ending-ish. Also insubstantial as cotton candy, or perhaps one should say apricot ice cream – a bit zingy here and there, but ultimately mostly just sweet. Definitely not a real meal of a book, but a delectable dessert.

Many thanks to Claire at Captive Reader for recommending this; it was a whole lot of fun, and a perfect use of my Christmas bookstore gift card, and I know I will reread it when I need a bit of a pick-me-up.

I did a brief reconnaissance of other reviews, and among the many to choose from (several thousand on Goodreads, with a substantial number of high ratings) I found this one, by Ottawa writer Zachary Poole, which nicely reflected my own pros and cons regarding the story. I was quite impressed that we both rated it the same, 7/10, and my thoughts echoed Zachary’s to a T, though I must add the disclaimer that never once was I even marginally teary eyed!

Zachary Poole at Pop Matters Review – The Rosie Project

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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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D.E. Stevenson’s 1961 novel Bel Lamington, featuring a young woman thrust out unprepared into a harsh world, Miss Beatrice Elizabeth Lamington – the “Bel” coming from her initials – left me just slightly underwhelmed.

I had first read the sequel to Bel’s titular saga, 1962’s Fletchers’ End, and references to Bel’s previous stint as a downtrodden secretary rather intrigued me. My eagerness to discover her prior story sent me off to the internet to purchase the book, and though I can’t say I’m disappointed by my latest D.E.S. acquisition, I’m not as thrilled as I’d hoped to be.

Bel Lamington links up with the earlier Vittoria Cottage/Music in the Hills/Shoulder the Sky (a.k.a. Winter and Rough Weather) trilogy, and the last third or so of the book concerns a number of characters whom the author assumes we have already met. Doubtless this was so for most readers at the time of Bel Lamington‘s publication; D.E.S. had her staunch following, and a nod to the readers-already-in-the-loop was doubtless the author’s intention here. But for those of us coming newly to the D.E.S. world some half-century after her heyday it can be a little disconcerting, though I must say it is fairly easy to pick up and follow the story threads.

It never seems like the author intends to leave things out, just that she assumes that we know the histories of the cameo role stars she features beside the up-and-coming ingénues. And Bel is very much a charming ingénue, in every sense of the word. Luckily her stellar qualities are recognized by just enough people to soften the blows that fall upon her tentative entry into a working girl’s world.

bel lamington d e stevensonBel Lamington ~ 1961.

This edition: Collins, 1961. Hardcover. 255 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Bel was orphaned at the tender age of three when both parents perished together in an automobile accident –  a “terrible motor smash” – but luckily she was taken in by a loving aunt and raised and cared for with tender affection. Her aunt has now died, and with it the small income they both lived on; there is nothing for it but for Bel to go out into the world and find employment.

She trains as a secretary and finds a job as a typist in a London shipping firm, and is soon promoted to private secretary to the firm’s chief partner, Ellis Brownlee. For Bel is one of those quietly competent types who excels at everything she attempts, and the author gets some digs in at the lackadaisical sorts whose office ambitions are more to do with flirtation and gossip than in dedication to their employers’ interests. Bel is definitely not cut from that pattern, and this inevitably leads to her being ostracized by the other female staff members, in particular the bullying Miss Goudge, who finds meek Miss Lamington a perfect target for her sarcastic jabs.

Bel’s private life is emotionally fraught as well. She is finding London exceedingly lonely, and has not made friends with anyone at all in the eighteen months she has been there. Her one comfort is the tiny rooftop garden she has created outside her top floor window, and lo and behold, this garden brings her into contact with a handsome young man.

Mark is an artist, and his discovery of Bel’s garden when he is scrambling about on the roofs outside his own top floor studio-flat leads to his painting of Bel’s portrait, and his impetuously offhand courtship of this hidden flower, this “charming little mouse” of a girl. Bel is initially bowled over, but soon finds that Mark’s enthusiasms wane as fast as they sprout up, and she sensibly keeps herself out of trouble when Mark’s casual advances become too forceful.

But it is hard to keep smiling, and Bel is descending into the depths of despair when a chance encounter with an old school friend at the exhibition of Mark’s painting of Bel brings her a happy respite, as she and Louise discover that they are kindred spirits.

Back at the office things are not going well at all. Bel’s mentor and protector Mr Brownlee has left on an extended overseas business trip, leaving Copping, Wills and Brownlee under the supervision of the over-emotional and verbally-abusive Mr Wills. Hand in glove with the manipulative Miss Goudge, Mr Wills ensures that Bel’s office days are numbered, and when the inevitable happens, she flees to Louise for refuge, ending up in Scotland, where everything gets itself all sorted out.

Fletchers’ End ~ 1962.

This edition: Fontana, 1971. Paperback. 256 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Spoiler alert: If you want to read Bel Lamington without knowing the results of her romance in book one, you should read no further. Here, I’ll pop in the cover illustration of Fletchers’ End to give you a chance to click away.

fletchers' end d e stevenson

Still here? Excellent. Here’s the next installment.

Bel and Ellis Brownlee are wed, and are now living in Bel’s tiny London flat and both working at Ellis’s office. They are also looking for a proper place of their own, preferably in the country but within easy commuting distance of London so Ellis can be handy to his shipping firm. Nothing suitable can be found, until Bel’s friend Louise sees potential in a dilapidated old house in a jungle of weeds, one Fletchers’ End in the village of Shepherdsford.

The absentee owner is desperate to sell, and Ellis and Bel purchase the house for a bargain price, though they are destined to make up for the initial savings in the ensuing renovation costs. This now becomes one of those “house books”, where the building is a character in its own right, and ultimately rewards its rescuers by becoming a warm and welcoming haven.

Bel’s adventures in renovation and restoration keep her occupied for the better part of the narrative, though there are side plots in the romance of Bel’s dear friend Louise, carried forward from the first installment, and the sudden appearance of the house’s previous owner, a young and handsome naval officer.

Mark-the-philandering-artist from Bel Lamington makes a brief appearance as well, as does the younger Copping from Ellis’s firm.

But not much really happens in this one, unless, of course, one appreciates the overwhelming busy-ness and architectural challenges and intrinsic rewards involved in a house renovation. The romance gets sorted out most satisfactorily, and all seems set for a happy ending when Bel and Ellis are suddenly faced with the possibility of having to walk away from Fletchers’ End: a will has been discovered which puts into question the legality of the house’s sale. Oh dear, whatever will happen now?!

Yes, it all comes out all right in the end.

(Was there ever any question?)

Nice parallel story of the elderly Mrs Warmer (what an apt name) who has been caretaking Fletchers’ End, and who stays on to provide a motherly presence in Bel’s kitchen, to the envy of all and sundry.

In both of these novels much is made of Bel’s timidity, her gentleness, and her overwhelming humility. D.E. Stevenson puts forward the argument that humility – true humility of spirit – is a worthy trait and should be viewed with respect. She therefore endows her heroine with appropriate rewards for her goodness and meekness. Though Bel occasionally shows that her inner core is of the toughest steel, her continual mildness is sometimes just the tiniest bit irritating; I can understand why Miss Goudge of the first book found her such a fitting target for perpetual scorn.

A very moralistic pair of tales, Bel Lamington and Fletchers’ End, with the author making very clear her opinions of how virtue and innate goodness should be rewarded, and how those who offend against the meek and well-meaning should be cast off into the outer darkness. All in all, a satisfying sort of point of view for this sort of blissfully simple fiction, for aren’t we all, fellow readers, on the side of the angels ourselves? 😉

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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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charity girl georgette heyerCharity Girl by Georgette Heyer ~ 1970. This edition: E.P. Dutton, 1970. Hardcover. 255 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This past Saturday morning which went rather sideways (three hours Good Samaritan detail waiting in a parking lot for BCAA to unlock a neighbour’s vehicle with the keys left inside) was salvaged by a very productive visit to the semi-annual Rotary Club book sale, where I picked up two small-but-packed-full boxes of pleasing finds for a mere $50. And best of all, I had my husband along to help in the search, and to lend strong arms to carry off the finds! (No mutters about “More books, why do we need more books?!” when he is involved in the process himself, and he was right in there with me searching for good things among the heaped tables and boxes of many other people’s cast-off reads.)

George Gissing’s The Odd Women, Antonia White’s Strangers, and Miles Franklin’s My Career Goes Bunk – all three nice unworn Viragos. A pristine Persephone edition of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Several new-to-me Willa Cathers – Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Professor’s House, and The Song of the Lark. A first edition of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Shield Ring, not ex-lib, with perfect dust jacket, in Brodart, yet! And others too numerous to name off. (Well, here are just a few more: Doris Lessing, Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck, Margaret Bell Houston, Jeanette Winterson, W.P. Kinsella, Rex Stout…what good reading awaits us.)

And then there was this book, a lovely early edition hardcover in only-slightly-worn dust jacket, Georgette Heyer’s Charity Girl. How could I resist? Bumped off the bedside table was Margaret Laurence’s most excellent book of Ghanian-set short stories, The Tomorrow-Tamer, with but two stories left to read, to be temporarily eclipsed by something much more playful – I think “frothy” would describe it well. In the very best way, of course.

Handsome, athletic, witty, kind-hearted, and fantastically wealthy Viscount Desford (Ashley Carrington, to his family and friends) has displeased his gruffly doting father by refusing to settle down and marry the most eligible Henrietta (Hetty) Silverdale. The Silverdales and Carringtons are long-time neighbours and friends, and Desford and Hetty have been happily paired up since childhood, though both confound their respective parents by insisting that things are strictly platonic, and bound to remain so. In the meantime, neither has met anyone they like well enough to marry, though suitors and prospective brides are swarming round both attractive honeypots, to be kindly brushed away in the politest way possible. But the thirties are approaching, and gossips whisper that both are surely bound to settle soon, though with whom is up for abundant debate.

Desford attends a party hosted by the scheming Lady Bugle, who, with five daughters to get off, has hopes that her eldest, the admittedly lovely Lucasta, will snag the prize. But Desford preserves a wisely noncommittal silence, unbending only when he meets the household’s least prominent member, a semi-orphaned neice, one Charity Steane, who goes by the name Cherry, and is as sweet and delectable as that implies. Cherry is properly grateful to her Aunt Bugle, but her position in the household is a lowly one, being something between nursery maid and unpaid companion to the younger girls, and no one hesitates to remind Cherry of her obligations, and the digressions of her parents. (Her late mother, Aunt Bugle’s sister, had eloped with the dodgy Wilfred Steane, a man who has notoriously lived by his clever wits and card-sharping skills, and who has vanished from the scene, permanently, it seems, as all devoutly hope.)

Cherry is overheard spilling her personal story to the interested Desford, and the resulting brouhaha sees her fleeing Lady Bugle’s house in tears and trudging along the road towards London in a forlorn and lonesome state. Desford, on his way home all happily innocent of knowledge of Cherry’s disgrace, stops his curricle and rescues the maiden, and conveys her to London, hoping to settle her with her grandfather, the notoriously crusty skinflint, Lord Nettlecombe. But Lord Nettlecombe appears to be out of town, and no one knows his whereabouts. What to do, then, with the hapless runaway?

In a mood of increasing desperation – the gossips will no doubt already have started the whispers about Desford being seen with an unaccompanied and very lovely young female person of unknown provenance – Desford conveys Cherry to Hetty’s house, setting off a string of events which entangles not only Desford, Hetty and Cherry, but their respective families – including a very-much-not-dead Wilfred Steane – as well as Hetty’s chief suitor, the reliably calm and cool Mr. Nethercott, and Desford’s bumptious younger brother, Simon.

Despite the title, the book is centered around the two Carrington brothers rather than the girl, for once Simon appears he rivals his elder brother in both personal attractiveness and slightly muddled goodwill to the delicious but one-dimensional Cherry, who is of a type to be carried along pell-mell by her tempestuous fate, a very good girl at heart, seeking only to please those who undertake her care, and desperately longing in her simple way for a place to at last call home.

A collection of pleasing characters, all in all, with even the villains having their likeable moments, as the tale tumbles to its easily foreseen conclusion. A light and pleasant read; perfect a few hours escape from gloomy, dark November.

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seven tears for apollo phyllis a whitneySeven Tears for Apollo by Phyllis A. Whitney ~ 1963. This edition: Fawcett Crest, 1966. Paperback. 224 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Here’s the back cover blurb on my tattered paperback, relic of one of my high school library’s discard sales way back in the 1970s:

Ever since the sudden, tragic death of her husband, pretty Dorcas Brandt lived in fear. Too many frightening, unexplainable things had begun to happen – the fatal accident to a close friend, the mysterious warnings scrawled on her mirror, her room ransacked.

Dorcas fled to Greece in search of sanctuary. But even on the beautiful island of Rhodes she could never escape the shadows of terror.

Was she just imagining it all?

Had the loss of her husband unhinged her mind?

Or was someone really out to destroy her?

Well, which one of those options would you suppose is the correct one?

If you guessed number three, you’d be bang on target. Dorcas is being persecuted, poor girl, and by a collective at that. Anyone she confides in either openly sneers at her allegations, patronizes her, or steps up the pressure. But why, oh why?

Here’s the story. We start out in the U.S.A., in an unspecified location that might just be New York, or possibly some other major eastern city. Some years back, museum curator’s lovely seventeen-year-old daughter Dorcas made a very bad marriage indeed, to sleek, handsome, half-Greek, half-Italian and all-wrong Gino. He turned out to be deceitful, manipulative, and physically violent; when Dorcas attempts to depart the marriage with baby daughter Beth, one of Gino’s mysterious “friends” pursues her and brings her back, warning her that it would be a very bad idea indeed to cross Gino, as what he owns (inferring Dorcas and Beth) he holds on to. Or else.

Gino’s profession as an art dealer is slightly nebulous but apparently profitable. Dorcas suspects that all of Gino’s transactions are not strictly legal, but she has no real proof, just an uneasy feeling which no one else seems to share, as Gino has a wide circle of influential friends in the arts-and-culture world, including matronly Fernanda, a best-selling author of quirky travel books, who has mothered Gino for years and extends her kindly meant but overbearing patronage to his wife and child.

Now nasty Gino has perished in a plane crash, and Dorcas is attempting to move forward in her life. She’s been having some emotional issues; Gino has had her in a facility for psychological treatment for her alleged neuroses, and Fernanda has been overseeing young Beth’s care. Now, since her widowhood and release from psychiatric care, Dorcas is herself living with Fernanda, acting as Fernanda’s secretary-assistant,  and reacquainting herself with four-year-old Beth. An upcoming trip to the Isle of Rhodes seems to be a positive step for everyone. Fernanda will gather material for her latest book; Dorcas will get a chance to experience Greece and see at first hand the sights that her late father could only dream of; Beth will bond with her mother in the bits in between.

As Dorcas stands in front of the museum copy of a statue of Apollo, steeling herself for the emotional journey she is about to embark upon, tears come to her lovely eyes, as she recalls her first meeting with the man that would become her husband – in front of this very statue, only a few months after her beloved father’s death – and Gino’s mysterious pronouncement that she must weep seven times for Apollo before she could shake the bonds that held her – whatever that had meant, if anything.

Dorcas weeps her way through this novel, with – I’ll give her that – abundant good reason. Gino brutalized her and left her physically traumatized and an emotional wreck; Beth has been virtually adopted by well-meaning Fernanda, with Dorcas’s contact with her daughter being held up as reward for good (meaning calm and rational) behaviour; and people – most notably Fernanda – insist on viewing Dorcas as a bereaved widow, when she is in actuality very relieved to be free of her malicious spouse. Everyone thinks Dorcas is a bit of a mess, and she tends to concur – though with slightly different reasoning.

Lately Dorcas has been finding evidence of a mysterious intruder in her room, with her belongings being ransacked, and a strange symbol being soaped on her mirror, or chalked on the floor – two circles, like the eyes of an owl. What could this mean?! And what is the apparent interest in a cryptic letter Gino had received just before his death, which Dorcas has refused to share with Gino’s associates, and which has now disappeared?

The average reader will be quicker off the mark than lovely, confused, jittering Dorcas. Something is definitely up, and Gino was obviously deeply involved. This trip to Rhodes will no doubt trigger all sorts of happenings. Beware, pretty lady!

The set-up of the novel is fairly promising, though the author drops some immensely broad hints as to what is coming up, first and foremost being that Gino is perhaps not quite as dead as he should be. The cryptic letter is obviously a clue of some sort to Gino’s last uncompleted nefarious transaction. Wee Beth is a perfect pawn, and will no doubt be used at some point to gain her mother’s cooperation by the as-yet-unidentified bad guys. Fernanda’s kindness will have a cost. Markos’s widow will hold a key secret to the affair. And there will be a romantic interest popping up soon. Ah yes, here he is. Johnny Orion, handsome young American schoolteacher, employed by Fernanda to squire her about Rhodes.

When we discover upon reaching Rhodes that the local museum is missing a major piece of ancient sculpture – the head of a boy with a tear on his cheek – we put two and two together. Obviously the Big Dark Secret has something to do with art theft! (At first I thought it might be drug running. But I swear that art theft was my second guess!)

Things get more and more hectic as the tale goes on, until the final dramatic dénouement, which sees our heroine weeping for what we hope will be the very last time.

This story was really not that great, being awkwardly plotted out throughout, and chock full of implausible action scenes and poorly written dialogue. It was head and shoulders better than Sea Jade and Columbella, though, hence its relatively high rating on my personal scale. I’m giving it a pass, at 5, because I think the author tried really hard to create an interesting scenario, and I could tell her heart was in the right place. It’s just too bad that others (Mary Stewart!) have done it so very much better.

Here’s an excellent review which goes into much more detail, plus it has lovely pictures. All of the troubling bits this blogger identified, I completely concur with, and the positive bits, too. Check it out.

Romantic Armchair Traveller – Seven Tears for Apollo

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the silver thorn hugh walpoleThe Silver Thorn: A Book of Stories by Hugh Walpole ~ 1928. This edition: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1928. Hardcover. 333 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Fifteen short stories by the prolific Hugh Walpole, originally published in various periodicals between 1922 and 1928. An eclectic mix, including several quietly creepy horror stories: The Tiger, The Tarn, Major Wilbraham, and, in my opinion, for its Kafkaesque atmosphere, The Dove.

A more than readable collection, though I didn’t feel that most of these were “top rank” for the short story genre of their era. They share something of a common theme, of yearning for various things, and of regret for decisions made in the past, and of the inexorability of fate and the urges – with varying degrees of success –  to go against it.

A gentle yet pervasively melancholy mood hovers over these stories, though they have a certain degree of humour and occasional happy resolutions, though always with an ironic twist. Shadows of the recent Great War and its effect on the collective psyche are very apparent in this collection; an interesting example of English literature between the 20th Century’s two world wars.

  • The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles – Two lady-friends keep shop together (fancy work and antiquities) in Silverton-on-Sea, but their happy establishment appears to be about to dissolve when the younger receives a proposal of marriage from a very eligible man.
  • The Tiger – Londoner Homer Brown dreams of being hunted by a tiger in the jungle; the dream accompanies him to New York, where it comes inexorably to a shocking climax.
  • No Unkindness Intended – Elderly, slovenly, ineffectual Mr. Hannaway, vicar of a city parish, is offhandedly dismissed from parlour after parlour, and things look dreary indeed until his path crosses that of a similarly situated small dog.
  • Ecstasy – A modestly successful poet who has been musing about his life and his twenty-year-old marriage and wondering where the ecstasy of the younger years has vanished to spends an afternoon with a tramp and regains hold of the key to contentment.
  • A Picture – Two lovers discover their essential differences over opinions of a small oil painting.
  • Old Elizabeth – A Portrait – An unemotional family, habitually unsentimental, are brought to their figurative knees by an elderly servant.
  • The Etching – Bullying Mrs. Gabriel goes too far when her otherwise meek husband discovers and indulges a passion for collecting old etchings.
  • Chinese Horses – This is one of the star stories of the collection, to my mind, elaborating on the theme of the first story, The Little Donkeys. Middle-aged Miss Henrietta Maxwell has nothing in the world but her beloved house, which she is forced to let due to financial difficulties after the war. An opportunity arises to bring her standard of living back to a higher level, but is it worth the compromises required?
  • The Tarn – The second horror story of the collection, and a very effective one at that. Author Fenwick’s life has always been shadowed by the more successful Foster; now the two are together as Foster seeks conciliation for the bitterness Fenwick feels. Fenwick isn’t really interested in making friends with his rival…
  • Major Wilbraham – An unusual story about a retired army major and his personal religious epiphany and its tragic – or is it truly tragic? – result. I am undecided as to whether this is a supernatural tale, or merely an attempt by the author at a religious allegory of sorts.
  • A Silly Old Fool – A chance remark by a patronizing wealthy parishioner changes Canon Morphew’s life, as he becomes aware of the possibility of seeking and attaining romantic love. But striving is not always rewarded with success…
  • The Enemy – Bookseller Harding is annoyed by the insistence of chatty neighbour Tonks to act as though they are close friends. He really just wants to be left alone to go his solitary way. Or does he?
  • The Enemy in Ambush – Stiff and very proper Captain John Ford boards out in Moscow with a family of emotional Russians, with a view to improving his Russian language skills. Cultures clash, with the stiff upper lip taking precedence, until Mrs. Ford shows up to accompany her husband home.
  • The Dove – In the years after the Great War, society seeks to understand the root causes of the recent conflict. One Percy Alderness-Slumber is inspired to go to Germany to investigate the feelings and emotions of the common people, hoping to gain some insight to bring back to England and share. His meekness and well-meaning lead to his ultimate undoing, as he becomes embroiled in a Kafkaesque scenario with his German landlady. A horror story not involving the supernatural realm, and one I know I will remember with a quiet shudder. Looking over the stories in this collection, I’m wondering if The Dove doesn’t rather stand out, along with Chinese Horses, as my most personally memorable.
  • Bachelors – Harry and his ten-tears-older brother Robin live in single happiness in the cathedral town of Polchester, and are well established as local “characters”. But one day Harry proposes to and is accepted to fluffily vivacious Miss Pinsent, and everything goes sideways for Robin. But is it a quiet personal tragedy, or a chance to live his own life at last?

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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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