Literary Ramblings

I have three terrific books to review but, at the moment, I don’t have the will or the energy to get my thoughts together. In the last two weeks, I’ve been in 19th century Yorkshire, revolutionary Russia & outback Australia in the days of the pioneers. However, I’m starting three weeks holiday on Friday &, right now, I have that “just let me get to the end of the week” feeling which means that coherent thought is beyond me. So, instead of a considered review of any of the books I’ve been reading, here are a few links, photos & reminders instead.

The freesias are from my garden, the first freesias I’ve ever successfully grown so I’m thrilled. Freesias are one of my favourite flowers, I love the scent. I know the jug they’re in has a Christmas theme & I hope this won’t mean that I’m condemned as one of those people (usually managers of supermarkets) who put the Christmas decorations & mince pies out in August. It was just the best sized jug for the purpose. The freesias only lasted a day at home as I had to save them from the Phantom Freesia Fancier, aka Lucky. I knew she loved eating roses but I thought the strong scent & the texture of the freesias would put her off.  It didn’t so, to save her from an upset stomach, or worse, I shut the flowers in the bathroom on Sunday & then took them to work. It’s been a very wet Spring here & I had to squelch across the lawn to pick them but it was worth it.

The 1947 Club is only a couple of weeks away & I have some very exciting books to choose from. Simon & Kaggsy are hosting a week of reading, blogging & discussing books published in 1947.

Here are the books I’ve plucked from the tbr shelves & I’m having a hard time deciding which ones to read. Any recommendations? In case the titles are a bit hard to read, they are Close Quarters by Michael Gilbert,  Full Moon by P G Wodehouse, A Crowd Is Not Company by Robert Kee, Poppies for England by Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild) & The Serendipity Shop by Dorita Fairlie Bruce.

I feel that I should have read a Mary Stewart novel in celebration of her centenary this month but I’m running out of time & probably won’t get there. However, I’m looking forward to reading the reprint of her novella, The Wind off the Small Isles, which has been unavailable for some time.

Also looking forward to Artemis Cooper’s biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard. There’s an article here by Cooper on the biography & she was also a guest on BBC Radio’s Open Book last week. I’m between audio books at the moment so maybe All Change, the final Cazalet novel, read by Penelope Wilton, should be next?

I bought a copy of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin the other day & I was reminded of the excellent TV adaptation from the late 70s with Kate Nelligan & Brian Cox. Alan Rickman is also in this production, which I’d forgotten although I probably didn’t know who he was back then! It’s on YouTube here if you haven’t seen it & the quality of the picture looks very good.

I’m not a big fan of those publishing projects where writers “update” the work of Jane Austen or Shakespeare. However, I’m intrigued by Margaret Atwood’s take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Hag-Seed will be published next month & here Atwood explains her ideas on the play & her version of it.

I love photos of bookshops & here are some gorgeous photos of the Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company along with Jeanette Winterson’s Preface for a new book about the shop.

Finally, Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow has heroically made all of our bookish shopping sprees look positively anaemic compared to this majestic haul of 96 books from the Friends of the San Francisco Library book sale. The publication date for his new imprint, Furrowed Middlebrow Books, is fast approaching & I’ve already started reading A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell.

Touch Not The Cat – Mary Stewart

I realise I’m a few days late for the official Mary Stewart Reading Week but I did want to post a review of Touch Not The Cat, so I hope I can be forgiven for extending the Week for a couple of days. I remember reading this book when it was first published in the 1970s & I still remember the striking cover image of a mosaic cat which is much more appropriate than the image used here on the latest reprint. I’ve liked most of the images used by Hodder for these reprints but this one is completely wrong. The book takes place in the mid 1970s in May & I see Bryony wearing cheesecloth & going barefoot (as she does several times in the story) rather than wearing a winter tweed suit that looks 1940s to me. However, that’s a minor quibble that didn’t prevent me enjoying the book just as much this time around.

Bryony Ashley has a gift that has been passed down through the Ashley family from a distant ancestor, Bess, who was burned as a witch in the 17th century. Bryony has always been able to communicate telepathically with another Ashley, but unfortunately she doesn’t know which one. She assumes that her Lover, as she calls him, is another member of her family because of the Ashley gift. Bryony has three male cousins, twins Emory & James, & their younger brother, Francis. She feels so close to her Lover that they are able to communicate with complete honesty, no matter how far apart they are. Bryony is desperate to find out who her Lover is but he continually puts her off, saying the time isn’t right.

Bryony & her father, Jonathan, live at Ashley Court, the family estate which has diminished in grandeur since the house was first built. The Ashleys now live in a cottage on the estate, renting out the Court to a rich American family. The state is bound by a Trust that has several restrictions put in place by William Ashley, the 19th century owner. Only male heirs can inherit & every member of the family must agree to the sale of land or property. Jonathan Ashley dies as the result of a hit & run accident in Germany, where he was receiving treatment for heart trouble. When Bryony arrives at the hospital, his doctor tells her of Jonathan’s last words, a message warning Bryony of danger & giving her clues to a mystery at the heart of the Ashley inheritance.

Bryony returns to Ashley Court to try & unravel her father’s warning & discover the identity of her Lover. The estate now belongs to her cousin Howard, father of Emory, James & Francis. He’s a very ill man, living in Spain, but the twins are running their family business which has always been prosperous. All Bryony now owns is her father’s cottage & she decides to stay on for a while & decide what to do with her future. She is happy to be at home with the people she’s known all her life, including the Vicar, Mrs Henderson & Rob Granger, a childhood friend who works on the estate.

Bryony notices that some valuable objects are missing from the Court & discovers that her cousins have anticipated the settlement of her father’s estate to sell them. Their business isn’t as successful as Bryony had thought & inheriting the Court hasn’t made their financial problems any easier. Bryony sees a more ruthless side to Emory & James as they try to push her into agreeing to sell the Court & her own cottage which has vital access for the developers who want to build on the land. She still isn’t sure which of her cousins is her mysterious Lover but she only grows more confused as she discovers that her father’s death may not have been an accident & begins to unravel her father’s last warning.

Touch Not The Cat is an absorbing story that had me hooked from the beginning. I love books with a supernatural air & Bryony’s telepathic communication with her mysterious Lover was unsettling & exciting. I also enjoyed the historical aspect of the plot as the story of the 19th century Ashleys, the maze they built with a pavilion at the centre that was used for lovers meetings & the story of the family’s crest all have a part to play in the mystery at the heart of the story. Mary Stewart describes landscape & the countryside so beautifully. I always enjoy her evocation of place & atmosphere & the English countryside in May is such a peaceful setting for this story that’s full of suspense & mystery as well as romance.

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of Touch Not The Cat as well as other books by Mary Stewart, available to buy from Anglophile Books.

Mary Stewart Reading Week – This Rough Magic

I’m so pleased that Anbolyn’s Mary Stewart Reading Week gave me the incentive to reread This Rough Magic. I read all Mary Stewart’s novels as a teenager in the 1970s & I bought several of the Hodder reprints a few years ago but have only read a couple of them. I was on holidays from work last week – which was meant to be relaxing but didn’t turn out that way – so a trip to Corfu, even if it was only in my imagination, was just what I needed.

Lucy Waring is an actress whose career has hit a bit of a lull. She’s happy to swap dreary London & the demise of the play she was in, for a holiday with her sister, Phyllida, on Corfu. Phyllida is married to a rich Italian banker whose family own not only the Castello dei Fiori, but also two smaller villas nearby. Phyllida & Lucy are staying at the Villa Forli while the other, Villa Rotha, is rented to Godfrey Manning, a writer & photographer. Lucy is intrigued to discover that the Castello is home to Sir Julian Gale, one of the most famous actors of his generation. Sir Julian had suffered some kind of breakdown after the deaths of his wife & daughter in a car crash & had become a recluse. Sir Julian’s son, Max, is staying at the Castello while working on a film score but Lucy doesn’t expect to see very much of them as their privacy is fiercely guarded by their gardener, Adonis, known as Adoni, who lives up to his name in looks.

Sir Julian has been visiting Corfu for many years & one of his most cherished theories is that the island is the site of Shakespeare’s Tempest. He is godfather to Spiro & Miranda, the twin children of the Castello’s housekeeper, Maria. According to Phyllida, the relationship may be even closer &, even though Spiro is supposed to be named after the patron saint of Corfu, St Spiridion, Phyllida is sure that the reference to Prospero is significant. While Miranda helps her mother at Villa Forli, Spiro has been employed to work for Godfrey Manning. As well as working on Manning’s boat, he also models for photographs with a dolphin he’s tamed. Lucy encounters the dolphin on one of her swims when someone starts taking potshots at it & she dives in to drive it out to sea. She also meets Max Gale on this occasion & is unimpressed by his manners.

On one of Godfrey’s night sailing trips to take photos, Spiro falls overboard & is presumed drowned. Soon after, a fisherman suspected of smuggling goods to communist Albania just across the ocean, is also drowned. On the night of his death, Lucy had seen this man,Yanni, on his way up to the Castello & she suspects Max of some involvement in the smuggling, especially given his suspicious behaviour when Yanni’s body is found. By this time, she has met Sir Julian & been entranced by his stories of the theatre & his theories about the Tempest. Max has been watchful of his father & slightly suspicious of Lucy, making her wonder why he doesn’t encourage visitors. Her increasing attraction to him is just another complication. Godfrey Manning is attractive, intelligent & very attentive to Lucy but could he have other motives for being on Corfu? Lucy becomes involved in the lives of all these people & will risk her own life to uncover the truth.

This Rough Magic had just the right combination of romance, suspense & action all set in a gorgeous location. The lush descriptions of the Castello’s gardens, the beaches & the surrounding countryside were so evocative.

After the dappled dimness of the wood, it took some moments before one could do more than blink at the dazzle of colour. Straight ahead of me an arras of wisteria hung fully fifteen feet, and below it there were roses. Somewhere to one side was a thicket of purple judas-trees, and apple-blossom glinting with the wings of working bees. Arum lilies grew in a damp corner, and some other lily with petals like gold parchment, transparent in the light. And everywhere, roses. … I must have stood stock still for some minutes, looking about me, dizzied with the scent and the sunlight. I had forgotten roses could smell like that.

Lucy has found her way into the Castello’s gardens & Sir Julian is about to greet her with a quotation from the Tempest. Lucy’s encounters with the dolphin in the bay are also almost mystical. She & Max save the dolphin when it has beached itself, she swims with it & it appears at a crucial moment when Lucy is in danger. It all seems part of the magical quality of the island with its legends & religious parades, a simpler side of island life to be contrasted with the deadly serious business of evil treachery that also has its place. The last third of the book is almost unbearably tense & I sat up late one night to finish the book because I couldn’t resist reading just a little more. Lucy is a resourceful heroine & although there’s not much doubt where her heart lies, her ability to stay out of trouble & to stay alive is more dubious. What acting talent she has comes in very handy before the adventure ends.

I’m not sure that This Rough Magic fits too many categories in Leaves and Pages wonderful Gothic Romance primer here but I just wanted to point any Gothic Romance fans to her blog anyway. I’m in awe of the amount of reading & reviewing that Leaves and Pages does & her blog is eclectic, funny & full of great recommendations of the kind of books I enjoy reading. In the post I’ve linked to, she reviews Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting as well as Madeleine Brent’s Tregaron’s Daughter & Georgette Heyer’s Cousin Kate, rating all three according to her own taste as well as the Gothic Mystery criteria. Mary Stewart comes out on top with 10/10. Very appropriate for Mary Stewart Reading Week.

Anglophilebooks.comCopies of This Rough Magic, as well as several other Mary Stewart titles are available from Anglophile Books.

A book lovers idea of Heaven

First, some very exciting news. I mentioned in this post on Pushkin the other week that one of my favourite books when I was young was Mara Kay’s The Youngest Lady In Waiting (cover photo from here). It was the book that began my lifelong interest in Russian history. It’s the sequel to Masha, the story of a young orphan’s life in early 19th century Russia. Both books were published around 1970 & are incredibly hard to get hold of. I read the copies in my school library & have always wanted to reread them. Well, Karoline, who commented on the post, asked if I knew that Margin Notes Books were reprinting both books later this year? Well, I didn’t but I’m so excited! There’s nothing on the website just yet but I’m so looking forward to ordering these. Hooray for another small publisher bringing back beautiful books. I have the Margin Notes Books edition of Five Farthings by Monica Redlich on the tbr shelves & I’m looking forward to reading it while I wait for the Mara Kays. Also, have a look at the publisher’s blog, there’s a link on the website. I’ll be monitoring both blog & website very closely for the next few months.

I’m not sure if I should be mentioning this next fact as it could be evidence of serious derangement when it comes to book buying. I’m closing in on 1000 books on the tbr shelves (maybe I should have written 1000 books, does that make it seem less obvious?). Should I be whispering with shame or shouting with glee? I’ll never be short of a book to read, that’s for sure. I’m up to 968 (according to Library Thing) with several more books on the way even now. The trouble is, I’m seeing the magic 1000 books as a challenge that I must complete by the end of the year so there’s definitely more glee than shame in my unrepentant attitude! I’ll just mention quietly that this is only the number of physical books. The ebooks are also out of control but they’re also invisible.

One book I bought recently was Summer’s Day by Mary Bell. I’d been reading admiring references about it on Scott’s blog, Furrowed Middlebrow, for some time now. From the original review to his search for the real identity of the author, to the most recent mention, when my resistance broke & I searched for a second hand copy (the Greyladies edition is out of print). Searching Abebooks sent me to Anglophile Books, where there were several copies of the Greyladies edition. I’ve been an occasional customer of Anglophile Books for some years now (unfortunately the postage costs from the US to Australia are quite high but I wasn’t going to let that stop me on my quest for this book & may I say, it hasn’t stopped me in the past).

Anglophile Books has the most wonderful selection of books for lovers of the middlebrow novel. Lots of my favourite authors – D E Stevenson, Dorothy L Sayers, Barbara Pym, Josephine Tey, Vera Brittain, E M Delafield – & many more. The owner, Laura, is also the convener of the D E Stevenson Yahoo group I’ve recently joined & she has very kindly linked to my blog on the website. If you have a look here, there are links to any books by my favourite authors that Laura has in stock. I’m not making any money out of the link, I’m just happy to point potential customers in the direction of a great secondhand bookshop.

Edited to add: Laura from Anglophile Books has created that little button which I am thrilled to say I have just successfully added to the post (thanks for the instructions, Laura). So, I’ll add the button to my post if Anglophile Books has a copy of a book I’m reviewing (& gradually go back through the archive) & you’ll be taken straight to the homepage if you’re interested in buying a copy. I feel quite technologically competent all of a sudden!

Two themed reading weeks are coming up in the next few months that I’m very excited about. Anbolyn at Gudrun’s Tights is hosting a Mary Stewart reading week from September 14th to 21st in honour of the novelist who died earlier this year. I’ve been planning to reread Mary Stewart ever since the last lot of reprints were published but I haven’t gotten very far. However, I have lots of her novels on my shelves (no excuse there for buying more books), & I plan to read at least one for that week.

Margaret Kennedy is an author who has been on the periphery of my reading world for quite some time. I’ve only read The Constant Nymph but I have a couple of others on the tbr shelves & I’ve ordered a few of the Vintage reprints that are to be published soon. Fleur Fisher is hosting the reading week from October 6th to 12th. You’ll find a comprehensive reading list on her blog. I’m leaning towards Lucy Carmichael, which seems to be a universal favourite but there are several others that look interesting. Kennedy was one of the group of novelists who went to Somerville College, Oxford in the 1920s. Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby & Dorothy L Sayers are the most famous names but maybe Margaret Kennedy is about to join them? It won’t be for want of trying if Fleur has anything to do with it.

I’m a big fan of Delphi Classics who produce complete collections of the work of out of copyright authors as very reasonably priced ebooks. They’re beautifully formatted & always include some rare gems or additional material about the author. Series Five has just been announced. These titles will be published in coming months & I’m especially excited about Margaret Oliphant & Frances Hodgson Burnett. As I said above, at least they’re invisible…

Thunder on the Right – Mary Stewart

Jenny Silver travels to the Pyrenees in search of her cousin, Gillian. Gillian is half-French & has lived in France with her husband for some years, although she lived in Oxford with Jenny’s family after her parents were killed in an air raid during the war. After Gillian is widowed, she writes to Jenny, telling her that she is about to enter a convent in the Vallée des Orages. Jenny is surprised & a little hurt that her cousin should do something so unexpected & she decides to go out & see Gill. At her hotel in the nearby town of Gavarnie she meets Stephen Masefield, a man she knew at home. Stephen was very much in love with Jenny but her mother disapproved of the relationship & his prospects & he left England to study music in Vienna. Now, after returning to Oxford, finding Jenny gone but encouraged by her father to pursue her, Stephen has followed her to Gavarnie.

Jenny sets out for the convent only to be told when she arrives that Gillian is dead. Doña Francisca, the bursar of the convent, tells her that Gillian was involved in a car accident on her way to the convent, caught pneumonia & died soon after. Jenny is shocked & determined to find out as much as possible. She’s also wary of Doña Francisca, a Spaniard who has never been professed but seems to wield enormous power within the convent. She takes decisions that would seem to be the province of the Reverend Mother, a gentle, elderly woman who also happens to be blind. So, she can’t see the rich paintings & gold candlesticks in the chapel of this humble convent & orphanage & doesn’t seem to have any idea that they’re there. Or realize how much power Doña Francisca seems to have over the young novice, Celeste, who has secrets of her own.

Jenny is immediately suspicious & becomes more so after she learns a little more about Gillian’s illness. Only Doña Francisca & a young novice, Celeste, seem to have seen Gillian. The Reverend Mother visited her but, of course, couldn’t see her. The description of Gillian seems to fit but there are worrying discrepancies. She was lucid at times, but never spoke of England where she grew up or mentioned Jenny even though she had asked her to come to visit her at the convent. Gillian was also colour blind, a rare condition in a woman & when Celeste tells Jenny how much Gillian had admired the blue gentians she put by her bed, Jenny knows that something is wrong. She is convinced that Gillian is not dead & that some other woman is in her grave.

The Reverend Mother is kind but unconvinced & Doña Francisca is scornful & does all she can to frustrate Jenny’s enquiries. Celeste & the other nuns seem completely under Doña Francisca’s spell & even Stephen thinks that Jenny’s grief has made her unreasonable. Jenny is invited to stay at the convent & she becomes more convinced that there is a secret at the convent that concerns Gillian. In the middle of the night she follows Doña Francisca to a nearby farm owned by Pierre Bussac, a man with a shady past & overhears enough to realise that there’s more at stake than just finding out about Gillian. Stephen becomes convinced when he learns from the police about Bussac’s activities during the war & after & their investigations lead them into danger as they try to find out what became of Gillian &, if she’s alive, who was the woman buried in the convent graveyard?

Thunder on the Right is a suspenseful, exciting story set, as all Mary Stewart’s books are, in a beautifully-realised location. The Pyrenees, near the border between France & Spain, are lonely, wild & treacherous & the climax of the book takes place on a stormy night as Jenny races along mountain paths dodging a landslide & the murderous Doña Francisca to get to the truth. Doña Francisca is a great villain, a woman totally obsessed with her power & her status. The pace is frantic &, although Jenny does a fair bit of running to Stephen for comfort & reassurance, she doesn’t give up her quest & is alone in the thrilling final chapters as she finally discovers the truth. Mary Stewart & Ann Bridge, who I’ve also been reading recently, both wrote novels of romantic suspense set in exotic locations & featuring heroines who do more than just sit back & wait for a man to work out what’s happening. Their books are perfect comfort reading with enough suspense to make the heart beat just a little bit faster & to make me feel very pleased to be sitting in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea at my side & a cat sleeping on my lap.

Stormy Petrel – Mary Stewart

I bought several of the lovely new Mary Stewart reprints a few months ago. I think I read all of her books when I was a teenager but I’d weeded all my old paperbacks long ago so I was ready for a reread. Being in the mood for all things Scottish at the moment, Stormy Petrel was the one I chose.

Rose Fenemore is a Cambridge academic & writer. She sees an advertisement for an “ivory tower” to rent on a Scottish island just when she’s feeling the need for a holiday & arranges to rent the cottage with her brother, Crispin, a doctor who also loves wildlife photography. Rose travels up to Moila in the Hebrides on her own with Crispin to join her in a few days. She soon feels at home in the cottage, Camus na Dobhrain, in a remote location but not far from the Big House, Taigh na Tuir, the House of the Tower. The House has been empty since the last owner, Mrs Hamilton, died. Crispin is delayed by a train accident but Rose is content to write, walk & explore the island.

On a stormy summer night, two men come in from the sea & take refuge at Rose’s cottage. The first, Ewen Mackay, has a key & lets himself in, much to Rose’s surprise. Ewen’s foster parents had once lived in the cottage but he’s been travelling for years & didn’t realise they’d moved away. Then, just as Rose is coming to terms with her first intruder, a knock at the door brings another. John Parsons is a geologist camping nearby while he examines a rock formation on a nearby broch or rocky island. His tent was blown away in the gale & he was lost until he saw Rose’s lights. Except that his name isn’t really John Parsons & Ewen Mackay’s charm can’t hide the fact that he has secrets of his own.

The more Rose discovers about John Parsons who is really Neil Hamilton, the heir of the old lady from the House, the more intriguing he seems. Neil has to decide on the future of the estate & the only offer he’s had so far is from a man who wants to turn it into a conference centre & resort. Ewen Mackay’s story is well-known to the locals & they’re not too happy that he’s returned. He was a wild boy who became a con artist & ended up in prison. Why has he returned to Moila? As Rose finds out more about both men, she has to decide who to trust.

I think Mary Stewart’s Scottish books are her best. She really knows & loves the landscape. The island is lovingly described, I felt I was there, especially as Neil & Rose explore the broch, accessible only by a causeway that’s cut off by the tide & home to innumerable midges & a colony of thousands of birds. The Big House, with its overgrown garden & overturned statues of Echo & Narcissus, is like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, waiting for the right moment to awaken to life.The romance is gentle & tentative but it’s the mystery of Ewen Mackay & his reasons for returning to Moila that really drive the plot. This is perfect comfort reading. A hauntingly beautiful setting & interesting characters add up to a very satisfying afternoon’s reading.

Mary, Winifred & Stella

Can you tell by the title of this post that it’s going to be about middlebrow women writers? Well, it is. Not a review but an enticement of lovely treats to come. As promised, here are the gorgeous new Mary Stewart reprints I’ve bought in anticipation of a reread one day soon.

I love the Vogue-style covers & I’ve been dipping in as they’ve arrived, trying to decide which one to read first. As it will probably be a winter Sunday afternoon read, should I go for the contrast of one of the stories set in hot places like Crete (Moonspinners) or Israel (Gabriel Hounds) or should I go for the Scottish coolness of Stormy Petrel? Decisions, decisions.

I was very excited to read on Dani’s blog, A Work in Progress, the other day that Virago are reprinting three more Winifred Holtby novels on the strength of the success of South Riding. Here’s a link to the Virago announcement, from where I also got the photo above. I love the covers, all based on railway or tramway advertisements of the 30s.

Speaking of beautiful cover art, the covers of the new reprints of Stella Gibbons by Vintage Classics have been revealed (pictures from The Book Depository). Am I shallow to be swayed by such beauty? I don’t think so! Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, Westwood & Starlight will be published in August, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, which is a volume of short stories, just before Christmas.

More treats to look forward to.

I posted last month about the forthcoming release of more long out of print books by Nancy Mitford & since then, in every blog, website, newspaper or magazine I’ve read, I’ve discovered more treats to look forward to. D E Stevenson is having quite a revival at the moment. I’ve been listening to lots of her books on audio, released by Soundings Audio Books (borrowed from my library). Persephone are reprinting Miss Buncle Married next month, after the success of Miss Buncle’s Book which they published a couple of years ago. Greyladies have discovered two previously unpublished books by D E Stevenson, The Fair Miss Fortune & Emily Dennistoun & they’ll be published in May (you can preorder them from April 1st).

Reading a recent issue of The Bookseller, I discovered that Virago are publishing a volume of previously unpublished stories by Daphne Du Maurier. The stories were originally published in magazines & Anne Willmore, owner of the Bookends bookshop in Fowey, tracked them down. Only one of the stories has ever been published in book form before. And His Letters Grew Colder was published in Virago’s Daphne Du Maurier Companion a few years ago. I read a volume of Du Maurier’s stories last year & I’m looking forward to reading these early stories very much.

Penguin are about to begin reprinting all of Evelyn Waugh’s books in lovely hardcover editions. I think these look very elegant & although his fiction has always been in print, Waugh also wrote travel books & biographies, like this book on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, that are less well-known.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is one of my favourite books so I’m very excited that Vintage are reprinting more of her books this year, including the sequels to Cold Comfort Farm, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm & Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. Two other titles, Westwood & Starlight, will be published in August & more will be available as Print on Demand. Vintage followed the same program a few years ago when they reprinted Nevil Shute. Four of his titles were printed as conventional paperbacks with the usual gorgeous Vintage covers & the rest of his backlist as POD with plain red covers. I bought them all for my library as I was so excited to have him back in print & available. Nevil Shute is a very popular author here in Australia. He lived here for many years, many of his books are set here & some of them like A Town Like Alice, On The Beach & Requiem for a Wren, are classics.

Mary Stewart is another favourite author getting a new look this year. Although she has rarely been out of print, her entire backlist is getting a new look from Hodder & Stoughton. I think these new covers are gorgeous & I’ve ordered 8 of them so I can indulge in a bit of a reread. I read all Mary Stewart’s books when I was a teenager but, until I reread My Brother Michael last year, I hadn’t revisited her in years. I’ll post some pictures of my Mary Stewarts when they arrive.

Well, that’s enough to be going on with, I think. I’m looking forward to a long winter of Sunday afternoons with a pile of books & endless cups of tea. Bliss!

My Brother Michael – Mary Stewart

Camilla Haven is sitting in a cafe in Athens writing to a friend. “Nothing ever happens to me” she complains. Famous last words for any heroine in a novel by one of the best writers of romantic suspense, Mary Stewart. Camilla is mistaken for a girl who has hired a car to take to Monsieur Simon in Delphi on “a matter of life & death”. She tries to discover who hired the car or where it was hired but when she’s unsuccessful, she decides to drive the car to Delphi herself. She wanted to visit the temple anyway & her money for bus fare is running low.  She also feels concerned about this Monsieur Simon & the peril he might be in. So, she sets off on a hair-raising drive on perilous roads to deliver the car to a stranger.

When she becomes stuck on a narrow village road, unable to reverse the car or go forward & surrounded by superior Greek men laughing at her predicament, who should come to her rescue but the very Monsieur Simon to whom she is delivering the car. To Camilla’s surprise, he’s English, a teacher on a pilgrimage to Greece to visit the place where his brother Michael died during the war. Simon knows nothing about the car or the girl who hired it but he takes over the driving & they set off for Delphi. Michael Lester worked for the British intelligence service during the war & was posted to Greece to help local resistance groups during the German occupation. He was living with a local family in a small village, Arachova, when he was discovered by soldiers. The son of the family was shot & Michael escaped to the hills to prevent anyone else suffering the same fate, even though he had been wounded. His family heard that he was missing & it wasn’t until some time later that they heard that he had been killed during his attempt to evade the Germans & was buried at Delphi.

Simon was much younger than Michael & he & his father were devastated by the news of his death. Now, fourteen years later, Simon’s father has died, &, among his papers, Simon has found Michael’s last letter among his papers, along with three gold sovereigns. The letter is full of excitement & Simon thinks Michael had discovered something important on Mt Parnassus, where he died. The letter is cautious, because of the tortuous path it will have to take to be delivered, but the ending makes it clear that Michael has found something,

…I’m seeing a man I can trust tomorrow, and I’ll tell him, come what may. And all being well, this’ll be over some day soon, and we’ll come back here together to the bright citadel, and I can show you then – and little brother Simon too. How is he? Give him my love. Till the day – and what a day it’ll be!

Simon & Camilla visit  Stephanos & his family in Arachova to find out where Michael died. Simon is shocked to discover that Michael wasn’t killed by the Germans but by a man who lived in the village, Angelos. He was a villain, working against his own people in the complicated political situation of resistance fighters & collaborators. Angelos disappeared not long after Michael’s death & is thought to have died in Yugoslavia. His cousin, Dimitrios, has returned to the village & claims to have seen Angelos – or his spirit – roaming the hills.  Simon is determined to find out why Michael was killed & what it was that he was so excited about just before his death.  

My Brother Michael is a terrific adventure story with lots of atmosphere & romance. Mary Stewart’s heroines are rarely passive & Camilla is a resourceful woman who feels an immediate connection with Simon & is drawn into his quest to find the truth about his brother’s death. Simon is a wonderful hero. Handsome, amusing, he treats Camilla as an equal, something her fiancé, Philip, never did. Camilla is searching for something too, a sense of herself, after a long engagement to a man who treated her like a doll. There’s a wonderful scene when they explore the ruins of the Temple at Delphi by moonlight & Simon quotes Ancient Greek verse from the stage of the amphitheatre.

Mary Stewart loved to set her books in exotic locations & you can feel the heat & dust of Greece on every page of this book. The references to the ancient world add to the atmosphere of danger & revenge but there are some very real, ugly villains in the book. The suspense as Simon & Camilla explore the mountain & find a cave & its hidden glory is very real. The dangers they face are real, too. I liked the fact that the romance is there from their first meeting but it never overwhelms the exciting, suspenseful story.

I read all of Mary Stewart’s books when I was a teenager, along with other favourite authors of the genre like Victoria Holt & Catherine Gaskin.  Chicago Review Press have recently reprinted some of Mary Stewart’s novels in the US & Hodder & Stoughton have many of her titles in print in the UK. I intend to revisit more of her books. There’s a sense of nostalgia because they were written mostly in the 50s & 60s & also because they remind me of my teenage years. But that wouldn’t be enough to make me want to reread them if they weren’t also suspenseful, romantic stories of adventure that keep me up until the small hours to read just one more chapter. Mary Stewart fans might want to have a look at this website & blog maintained by some avid fans of her work.