Posts Tagged ‘Scotland’

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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

The Middle Window by Elizabeth Goudge ~ 1935. This edition: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1949. Hardcover. 310 pages.

My rating: 3.5/10

This is a rare negative review. Rare, because if I sincerely dislike a book, I will put it down unfinished and never pick it up again. Since one can’t honestly review a book without reading the whole thing at least once, and spending some mulling-over time on it as well, the situation generally doesn’t arise.

In this case I persevered with The Middle Window (though it took me numerous tries) because it is an early work by an author whom, for all her many literary flaws – frankly purple prose, excessive sentimentality, long passages of vaguely theological navel-gazing, repeated use of the same characters under different guises, and improbably tidy “happy” endings – I generally enjoy, and I was eager to add another title to the growing Elizabeth Goudge section on my shelves. I have at last choked the whole thing down, several years after its much-too-pricey purchase, and at least three aborted previous reading attempts. So I am going to review it, and then tuck it away at the back of the shelf, and move on.

Warning: spoilers follow. If you’re already a die-hard Goudge fan, you won’t be put off by knowing what happens; it’s utterly predictable but you won’t mind that – all of her books follow generally the same pattern, and you’ve already figured that out, right? If you’re just getting started on her books, or are wondering if they’re worth your time, this may help you make up your mind. This author wrote some MUCH better novels – do not start with The Middle Window! Try the Eliot trilogy instead (The Bird in the Tree, The Herb of Grace, The Heart of the Family), or The Scent of Water – my personal favourite.

*****

Spring had jumped straight out of heaven into London. For an eternity coughing, sneezing millions had coughed and sneezed at the centre of a black balloon of fog and dirt, frost and misery. Young and old, rich and poor, fair and ugly, they had all alike choked and shivered and beaten imprisoned hands against that rounded black wall that shut them in. But now, suddenly, between the hours of sunset and sunrise, the miracle had happened. The boy Spring, his arms full of glories stolen from divine treasuries, had strolled to the portal of heaven, had poised tiptoe on the lintel, had spread his wings and jumped. Crash! His feet, pressed together and pointed downwards like a slender arrow, had punctured the black balloon. All that was left of it, torn black scarfs of smoke, evil-smelling wraiths of fog, drifted and coiled into the foul, dark corners of London, while the boy, speeding downwards, flung out his arms and spread his treasures sweeping fanwise over the city.

The crash awakened the millions. Running barefoot to their windows they looked out. Beyond the smoke-grimed panes they were aware of a drifting glory and showers of rainbow light. Some of them, throwing up their windows and thrusting tousled heads out, were just in time to hear a rustle of wings and glimpse the downward gleam of arrowy feet, and a few, a very few, as the sun rays slanted across the sky, saw the shadowed sparkle of a boy’s blue eyes behind the curve of golden lashes.

Whew. First two paragraphs of the novel. Elizabeth Goudge has let her writerly hair down, and that’s just from the prologue.

Beautiful, wealthy and rather spoiled young socialite Judy Cameron is just getting over the flu, and is feeling physically and emotionally fragile as a result. Wandering window-shopping this spring day through the London streets, Judy is inexplicably drawn to a painting in an art gallery window. It is a Scottish scene, mountainside and loch and heather, and as Judy stares into it the traffic sounds fade and she is drawn into a strangely familiar world where, in reality, she has never been before. Luckily her doting fiance, Charles, a cheerful if not particularly intellectual army captain, turns up in time to rescue her from her daze.

Soon Judy is off to Scotland to holiday in a rented estate house, dragging an entourage of doting father, volubly complaining mother, and bemused Charles. (They were supposed to holiday in Bournemouth.) They are heading for what Judy just knows is the original setting of the painting. And, lo and behold, she’s right! Everything is familiar to her, she knows exactly how things will be before she gets there, it’s just as if she was once there in a previous life! How intriguing!

It gets even more intriguing as the estate’s picturesque butler (“Arrr, do ye be the wealthy Sassenach interlopers? Here’s yer tea, then…”) stares deeply into her eyes and calls her “Mistress Judith” with a certain knowing intonation. And look, here’s the young laird himself – a hunky dish named Ian Macdonald – come to welcome her. What is this thrill of mutual recognition, and why does he also stare into Judy’s lovely eyes with such passion, heedless of her looming official lover, Charles?

To condense: Judy and Ian turn out to be the reincarnations of 1700s’ doomed lovers Judith and Ranald Macdonald. Before consummating their wedding night, Ranald tears himself away from his passionate (and passionately frustrated, one must assume) bride to take part in the attempted restoration of Bonnie Prince Charlie to the British throne. And, as we all know, that whole adventure is doomed to end badly. Goudge subjects us to a long and tiresome historical fiction episode in the middle of the story in order to explain all of this. Modern-day Judy puts on dead-and-gone Judith’s dress and suddenly travels back in time (mentally, not physically – in real life she merely faints) where she relives Judith’s experiences.  After the Jacobite rout at Culloden, Ranald sneaks home, after a side trip to help row the prince to Skye, good for another few pages of filler.

Unluckily for Ranald, British soldiers are already there waiting for him; they intend to hang him as a traitor. He manages to duck the soldiers and briefly reunite with Judith, but slides away again to hide nearby until she can get rid of the arresting officers. They know something is up, are not fooled by Judith’s vague excuses, and hang around in ambush mode. Eventually Judith fires a warning shot through her parlour’s “middle window” and fatally wounds Ranald, who was lurking just outside. He dies in her arms, but not before telling her that their great love will be fulfilled in a future generation. Judith is left to linger on, which she does for many years, as the estate falls into ruin and the Scottish mists mingle with the tears in her eyes.

Hence Judy and Ian’s overwhelming mutual adoration. Poor Charles is eventually given the heave-ho, but that’s all right, because Ian’s chipper sister Jean is there to catch him; she’s been giving him the glad eye the whole summer, and she’s a much better fit for him anyway, so all’s well that ends well.

Gar. What a tiresome story this was. I feel all bilious; I think I need to read something crisp and witty to cleanse my emotional palate. Or maybe another Goudge to prove that she can do better (a lot better!) than this overblown romantic mess. The whole reincarnation thing was just downright disturbing. Not that I have a problem with the concept, at least fictionally speaking, but it felt exceedingly contrived in this case. In later novels Goudge tones this idea down, or perhaps “refines” would be a better term, but she still continually trots out the troubled ancestor “coming back” in the contemporary character for some sort of redemption or fulfillment.

Stereotypical characters, predictable plot, overly rambling, and decidedly over-written. This was Goudge’s second published book, following her very popular first novel Island Magic, which I have not yet read; now I’m rather afraid to! She was definitely still very much finding her narrative voice.

*****

Goudge was, in her heyday, a very popular writer of the “inspirational-romantic” genre. Daughter of a noted theologian, Elizabeth Goudge’s strong Christian faith is obvious in every one of her stories, though she also generously allows strong pagan overtones in some of her tales and has a deep tolerance for other religions; some of her best characters are atheists and agnostics. She was all about finding “God” in your own way, not blindly following a laid-out creed; something I must admit I deeply appreciate in many of her works.

While I have a sentimental fondness for Elizabeth Goudge and her often inspirational messages, I have reservations about certain aspects of all of her books. Even in my favourite, The Scent of Water, there are several rambling sections I scan over quickly to get back to the thread of the story. But none of her later books are anything near so dreadfully messy as The Middle Window! Such a relief that this writer’s style evolved.

Read Full Post »