Deep Water – Christine Poulson

A cure for obesity is the Holy Grail of medical research. Two years after a drug trial that went horribly wrong when a participant died, Calliope Biotech is close to success in the quest for a drug that will cure obesity. When another company claims to have got there first, & takes their claim to court, patent lawyer Daniel Marchmont is employed by Calliope’s entrepreneurial director, Lyle Linstrum, to scrutinize the evidence of lab books & trials when the lawyer working on the case, Jennifer Blunt, is killed in a car accident. Daniel’s reservations about taking on the enormous workload of the case are complicated by the fact that Jennifer was his ex-wife, who had left him for his best friend. Now happily married to Rachel, they have a daughter, Chloe, who suffers from Diamond-Blackfan anaemia. Rachel is concerned that taking on Jennifer’s case in such circumstances will revive painful memories but she’s unprepared for the stress that events from the past will place on her marriage. When Daniel discovers that a vital lab book, detailing the experiments undertaken by Honor Masterman & her team, is missing, & questions are raised about Jennifer’s professional competence, the car accident begins to look more sinister. When Daniel finds the missing lab book hidden in Jennifer’s house, the mystery only deepens as he tries to discover why Jennifer hid the book & what impact its contents will have on the case.

Chloe’s condition needs constant treatment – blood transfusions, injections – & the only hope for a cure is either a bone marrow transplant (neither Daniel or Rachel is a match) or the research that consultant paediatrician Paul O’Sullivan & his team are working on. Grant money is fast running out & researcher Katie Flanagan is under pressure to come up with publishable results that will hopefully lead to a cure for Diamond-Blackfan anaemia. Rachel is involved with the charity sponsoring the research &, after meeting her, Katie is very aware of the lives that depend on her work. That’s why she’s frustrated when her experiments don’t seem to be producing the expected results. Katie is also aware of how important this research is for her own career. She can’t stagnate at her current level forever. She needs to move on from postdoctoral research in a lab to a lectureship or permanent university post. After the sudden death of her supervisor, she was lucky to be offered a bench in Honor Masterman’s lab to be able to complete her research before the grant money ran out.

Professor Honor Masterman has been touted as a future Nobel Laureate & her team, led by Will Orville, are depending on the successful outcome of the patent case; their reputations depend on it. Katie is grateful for a working space but soon becomes aware that there’s something wrong at the lab. Working late at night she’s aware that there’s someone else there, someone who isn’t written in the log book. There are also odd accidents – chemicals misplaced, the spread of radioactive contamination. There’s also the puzzling non-results of Katie’s experiments. A gas explosion that leaves a security guard & lab technician Ian Gladwill in hospital leaves Katie wondering if someone could be deliberately sabotaging the lab. Katie’s friendship with Rachel leads to her renting the Marchmont’s barge when her flat’s lease runs out. She becomes involved in Daniel’s case when she’s able to help him interpret the crucial lab book & begins investigating, putting herself in considerable danger as reputations & a lot of money are at stake.

Deep Water is a terrific thriller. I enjoyed it as much as Christine Poulson’s last novel, Invisible. I really enjoy the way that she combines a tense plot with the very personal stories of her protagonists. Daniel & Rachel’s desperate search for a cure for Chloe that leads Rachel to join the board of the charity raising money for research is underpinned by the details of Chloe’s ongoing treatment. Their life revolves around Chloe’s needs but they’re a happy couple until Jennifer’s ghost brings back Daniel’s memories of their marriage & heightens Rachel’s insecurities about her place as Daniel’s second wife – was she only second-best? Daniel’s reservations about taking on Jennifer’s case are complicated not just by personal feelings but the need for his company to keep Lyle Linstrum happy. He can have no idea of the complications that the case will bring to him personally as well as professionally.

I also loved all the detail about scientific research & the constant need to publish, chase grants & funding, the temptation to heighten or even falsify results is ever-present. The atmosphere of the lab, with its strict security & focused researchers, was great but I always love the sense of place that Christine Poulson evokes. The Cambridgeshire Fens, Ely Cathedral & especially the lonely stretch of water where the barge is moored, were so evocative. As a cat lover I also have to mention Orlando, the ginger cat who has several significant scenes in the narrative. Katie Flanagan is a very sympathetic character & I’m pleased that Deep Water is the first in a series featuring Katie. The moral & ethical dilemmas in the story are incredibly knotty & all the characters have to grapple with the human cost of their actions. I always read Christine’s books in a great rush & this was no exception.

Lion Fiction kindly sent me a review copy of Deep Water. You can read more about Christine’s work at her website here & there are interviews with Christine on Sue Hepworth’s blog & at Clothes in Books.

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.

Invisible – Christine Poulson

Jay & his family are settling in to a new house. But this isn’t a planned move. Jay is in witness protection & his wife, Mia & son, Sam, seem unsure & a little apprehensive about their new circumstances. Next morning, a devastating explosion kills Mia & Sam & leaves Jay with physical & mental scars.

Five years later, Jay is still in hiding, but from who & what, we don’t know. He is having an affair with Lisa, a single mother caring for a teenage son, Ricky, with cerebral palsy. Lisa & Ricky lived with her father, Lawrence, until his recent death & she is still grieving for him & the support he always gave her. Lisa & Jay met through a mutual interest in Chinese culture & continued to meet one weekend a month, always in out of the way cottages. The relationship suited Lisa. Ricky & his needs always came first & Jay understood that & never wanted more than she was willing to give. Lisa’s ex-husband, Barry, had left when Ricky was a baby, unable to cope with his disability. He had always contributed financially but has had no contact with Lisa or Ricky for years. Suddenly, Barry turns up with a proposal that disconcerts Lisa & threatens to change her relationship with her son.

Lisa told no one about Jay, although she suspected that Lawrence had an idea that she was meeting someone on her precious weekends away. They lived in the moment so it didn’t seem odd that Jay never talked about his family, his past or the scar on his face. But, after a visit to a stately home one weekend, things changed. Jay became reluctant to leave their rental cottage, no more visits to museums or eating out. Then, Lisa arrives for the weekend & Jay doesn’t show up. At first, she’s desperate, thinking he’s had an accident or has been taken ill. She can’t contact him, he doesn’t phone or write, & she begins to discover how little she really knew about the man she loved. As her friend, Stella, says, “In my experience these things hardly ever come out of the blue. So often there are warning signs, just little things that you didn’t want to see at the time. It’s only when you look back that you realise.” Stella thinks that Jay was married & that he’s dumped Lisa when he was found out. The truth is so much more complicated, as Lisa discovers when she begins to look for those little moments, those hints that something was not quite right.

Jay, on the other hand, has realised that falling in love with Lisa was the biggest mistake he could have made. He’s working on a plan to take revenge on the man who forced him into witness protection & killed his family. He knows he can’t contact Lisa but doesn’t realise that, as well as putting his own head above the parapet, he’s also put her in great danger.

Invisible is a great thriller. I can’t say too much more about the plot because the twists & turns are the whole point of reading a book that wrong foots the reader at every turn. I really needed to concentrate, especially in the beginning as many characters are introduced & their relevance only becomes clear as events unfold.  In the end, I just put aside an afternoon to finish it because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. Invisible is more than a conventional thriller though, because we have the domestic, ordinary story of Lisa & Ricky alongside the story of Jay. This was the real attraction of the book for me. I’m not a fan of thrillers which are just one long chase after another with a little violence thrown in. As a fan of Spooks (I never missed an episode), I also loved the way Jay carried out his plans & Lisa’s trip to the British Library – I can’t say any more! Christine Poulson kept me reading by giving out just enough information to intrigue & puzzle so that I had to read just one more chapter. That’s why, in the end, I just dropped everything else & read the last half of Invisible in one sitting.

I loved Christine’s earlier series of crime novels featuring Cambridge academic Cassandra James & I still live in hope that there will be another Cassandra mystery one of these days. The series is available in ebook format, & the first book, Murder is Academic, is available in paper from Ostara Publishing, which has a great classic crime list. I read Invisible as a Kindle ebook & it’s also available in paperback. There’s more information at Christine’s blog, A Reading Life.

The Episode at Toledo – Ann Bridge

The Episode at Toledo is the 6th book in the Julia Probyn series of novels by Ann Bridge. I’m so pleased that Bloomsbury included these books in their wonderful Bloomsbury Reader list of e-books as I’ve loved reading them. There are only two more in the series & I was very tempted to go straight on to the next one last night when I finished this. It’s that old dilemma – do I space the books out so that they last or rush on to the next one & finish the series knowing there will be no more?

Hungarian Countess Hetta from The Portuguese Escape has married British diplomat Richard Atherley & they’re now living in Madrid. When an American admiral arrives to inspect the location for a NATO base, Hetta is horrified to recognize a Hungarian Communist acting as his chauffeur. The chauffeur, Luis, was involved in the expulsion of the nuns Hetta lived with in Hungary during the Soviet invasion & she recognizes him even though he’s changed his name & now has American papers. She discovers a plot to assassinate Admiral Luxworthy but in foiling the attempt, the chauffeur, Luis, recognizes her & her life, & that of her unborn child, are in danger.

Hetta retreats to Gralheira, the Portuguese estate of the Duke of Ericeira, along with the Duke’s daughter, Luzia, who is hoping to become engaged to Nick Heriot, the young man she met while living with Julia in the previous book, Emergency in the Pyrenees. Even at Gralheira, Hetta is not safe, as the Spanish members of the Communist cell follow her & make another attempt on her life during a partridge shoot. Again, it’s unsuccessful & the gunman is captured. He attempts suicide & Hetta’s quick thinking means that a Spanish speaking priest is available to give him comfort & hear his confession. However, as he’s a Communist, he refuses to confess yet tells the priest vital information before his death. Even after the Atherleys return to Madrid, Hetta has to overcome further danger before she can retreat to Glentoran to spend the few months before her child is born in safety.

This is much more Hetta’s story than Julia’s. Julia is living at Glentoran, the Highland estate of her cousins the Munros, with her son while her husband, Philip Jamieson, is on an assignment in the Middle East. She starts the ball rolling by contacting an old friend in British intelligence when she receives letters from Hetta & Luzia with cryptic information. She also arranges Hetta’s retreat to Scotland with her usual efficiency. Hetta has grown up considerably since we last met her. Where she was once a headstrong girl with very definite ideas about right & wrong, she has learnt to modify her opinions a little in the diplomatic circles she now moves in. Her relationship with the worldly priest, Monsignor Subercaseaux, shows this very well. Hetta disliked the Monsignor when they first met because she had very austere ideas of how priests should live. She discovers in this book that a priest can be wise as well as worldly & the Monsignor’s connections are vital in helping to expose the Communists & prevent an assassination attempt on another American official.

As always the main delights of these books is not really the espionage plot but the setting & the recurring characters. I loved the few scenes set at Glentoran, meeting Mrs Hathaway again & especially the scenes at Gralheira, the Ducal estate in Portugal. Nick Heriot arrives to meet Luzia’s father, the Duque & they are soon great friends. Nick is eager to learn about the estate which will be his home & he has some ideas of his own about modernising & improving life for the estate workers as well as the family. Nick’s parents, Lord & Lady Heriot also arrive for a visit & the Duque is soon eagerly showing them the wine pressing & arranging a partridge shoot.

Hetta & Luzia are the driving forces behind all the detection. The local security forces & even Richard Atherley & the Ambassador, just trail around in their wake trying to catch up. They’re energetic & determined young women – assassins & Communist plots haven’t got a chance. The Episode at Toledo is an exciting, adventurous story with engaging characters & beautiful settings. I loved it & I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get to the end of the series.

Ninepins – Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton’s new book is a departure in tone from her earlier books. Ninepins reads like a sophisticated thriller but a thriller that’s firmly based in the everyday lives of Laura & her daughter, Beth.

Laura & Beth live in a remote tollhouse in the fens. Laura rents out the former pumphouse to students to help make ends meet but her new tenant isn’t a student. Willow has been in care for the last few years & now, at 17, she’s ready to try independent living. She has had a troubled past with a neglectful mother & a history of attempted arson (which Laura only gradually discovers). Willow had seen the photo of the pumphouse & wanted to live there rather than in a bedsit in Cambridge. So, she arrives to have a look at the place with her social worker, Vince.

Laura is cautious about renting the pumphouse to Willow but is convinced by Vince & the fact that it’s too late in the year to find another student tenant. Willow seems a little remote but Beth takes to her & Laura tries to forget her reservations. Laura is also preoccupied by Beth, who’s at an awkward age between childhood & the teenage years. Beth seems to be unhappy at school & Laura doesn’t like some of the new friends she’s made. Beth suffers from asthma & Laura tries not to be overprotective. She also has an awkward relationship with Beth’s father, now remarried & with a new young family. The atmosphere at Ninepins becomes tense as winter approaches & the beautiful landscape of the fens becomes more threatening. And then the reappearance of Willow’s mother brings the tension to a new level.

Ninepins is an absorbing book. I love books set in remote, wintry landscapes & the atmosphere of the fens & the river is beautifully evoked. The house itself is a character in the plot, a brooding presence in the landscape. The heart of the book, though, is the relationship between Laura & Beth. Mother-daughter relationships can be strained, especially at the beginning of the teenage years when everything a mother says can be misunderstood as interference. For Laura, her feelings of inadequacy are increased by her broken marriage & her worries about Beth’s health & friendships. Her own growing relationship with Vince also puts some stress on her relationship with Beth. We also see events from Willow’s point of view which only adds to the sense of dread. The events at the end of the book will either clear the atmosphere or destroy Laura’s world forever.

Rosy Thornton kindly sent me a copy of Ninepins for review. You can read more about Rosy & her other books at her website here.

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.

A Lighthearted Quest – Ann Bridge

I’m glad that A Lighthearted Quest is the first of a series because I’m looking forward to spending more time with Julia Probyn. Julia is a freelance journalist with private means who agrees to go out to Morocco to look for her cousin, Colin Monro. Colin is the son of a rather flustery widow. She owns an estate in Scotland that, until recently, was run by her brother-in-law. His recent death has brought Colin’s sister, Edina, home to look after things but she has a well-paid job in advertising in London, & doesn’t want to live at Glentoran indefinitely. Her salary also pays some of the bills. Colin hasn’t been in touch for months & all their letters & newspaper advertisements have met with silence. He was last heard of sailing a yacht around Casablanca & Gibraltar, buying & selling oranges. Julia agrees to go out to look for Colin, planning to supplement the meagre currency allowance with some articles for her newspaper clients.

Julia is practical & very determined. She’s also beautiful & has admirers in some very advantageous places such as the Foreign Office & various banks. Julia’s good looks lead some people to underestimate her, see her as a “dumb blonde” but they’re wrong. She’s the kind of no nonsense Englishwoman who asks questions & just expects to receive answers. This sometimes leads to over-confidence & gets her into trouble more than once on her adventures but I found her an endearing character. She also reads Nancy Mitford & Edith Wharton so I could approve of her literary taste as well. Published in 1956, the book is full of the details of travel & politics of the era. Some of the attitudes to women & colonialism are dated but they’re of their time & I enjoy books of this period & earlier without worrying too much about the sometimes questionable attitudes of the characters.

Julia goes out to Morocco on a freight ship &, after an unexpected stopover in Casablanca that allows her to meet up with her banking friend, she moves on to Tangier. No one she speaks to believes that Colin is selling oranges, they all assume he’s smuggling as everyone does along the coast. Tracking him down becomes complicated &, as money is running out, Julia gets a job as secretary to an eccentric Belgian archaeologist, Mme La Besse. Mme is excavating a Phoenician settlement with oil presses, wine vats &, hopefully, some undisturbed tombs.

Julia also makes contact with the mysterious Purcell, the owner of a bar where a lot of English expats congregate. Purcell is able to give Julia a few clues & she soon decides that whatever it is that Colin is smuggling, it’s something more important than a few luxuries for the beauty-starved English. He could even be involved with British Intelligence. She catches a glimpse of Colin & his red-bearded companion on the roof of a house in Tangier but loses him in the crowd. Julia’s search takes her to Fez & Marrakesh, into the souks & bazaars as well as the cocktail parties & hotels of the wealthy. She pieces together the story after adventures including a bomb blast & a night spent in an empty tomb to deter grave robbers. There’s even a hint of romance for Julia by the end of the book.

I loved the atmosphere of this book. I was reminded of Mary Stewart’s books with their resourceful heroines in exotic locations. Also of M M Kaye, who wrote a series of murder mysteries called Death in Zanzibar, Death in Kashmir etc. Although M M Kaye is better known for her big Indian Raj historical novels like The Far Pavilions & Shadow of the Moon (both just reprinted by Penguin), I enjoyed this series which I think was influenced by the author’s life as an Army wife being posted all over the world. I’d love to read them again. Ann Bridge’s husband was in the diplomatic service & you can feel her personal knowledge of North Africa in her evocative descriptions of the cities Julia visits,

Afterwards they all strolled again on the Djema el F’na. There was a full moon, and the great Koutoubia minaret – to eyes familiar with the minarets of Turkey, slender as knitting-needles, so much more like a tower – stood up almost transparent in the moonlight, in all its immense dignity and beauty. At night, under the naphtha flares, the tempo of pleasure and entertainment on the great square – the “place folle” as the French call it – is heightened: the circles around the dancers are more dense, the grey-bearded performers leap more wildly, while the metal clappers, the original castanets, rattle like machine-gun fire; the gestures of the story-tellers are more dramatic, the serpents of the snake-charmers writhe like souls in torment. Public enjoyment for its own sake here achieves an expression unparalleled elsewhere on earth – it is indescribably stimulating. But it is also exhausting, and presently Julia declared for bed.

All the Ann Bridge series (the list of titles is here) are available from Bloomsbury Reader as Print on Demand paperbacks or as e-books, which is how I’ll be reading them. I bought my e-book copy from The Book Depository where it was on sale for 40% off.

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.

My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier

I read most of Daphne Du Maurier’s novels as a teenager in the 70s. Rebecca was my favourite, of course. I loved Laurence Olivier in the Hitchcock movie (even though they had to change a few plot points to make Max less culpable) & I read the book over & over again. I still have a few of the novels to go & I’ve only read one of her volumes of short stories. I borrowed most of her books from my local library in the old yellow Gollancz hardbacks.

I was very pleased when Virago started reprinting Du Maurier so I could catch up on a few titles I’d never read, including some of the non-fiction books she wrote about her family. I’d also like to find time to reread Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne. If you click on the photo, I hope you can see the titles of my Du Mauriers more clearly. The 3rd book down with the very faded spine is The Rebecca Notebook & other memories. After I took the photo I remembered my copy of Vanishing Cornwall which is on another tbr shelf. My Cousin Rachel was another of the books I read back then. When Cornflower announced it as her next Book Club choice, I was inspired to take my copy down from the shelf for a reread.

My Cousin Rachel made a great impression on me as a teenager. I remember being unsure who to believe – Philip, the young naive narrator, or beautiful sophisticated Rachel. This time, I was much more firmly on Rachel’s side, although there’s enough doubt in my mind about some of her actions & motivations to still be tantalisingly unsure. That’s the beauty of Du Maurier’s skill as a writer. The balance sways one way & another without ever coming to rest completely. As Philip’s godfather tells him,

There are some women, Philip, good women very possibly, who through no fault of their own, impel disaster. Whatever they touch somehow turns to tragedy. I don’t know why I say this to you, but I feel I must.

The story is one of jealousy & love. Philip Ashley has been brought up by his cousin, Ambrose, a middle-aged bachelor, at their family home in Cornwall. Ambrose travels to Italy for his health, &, while he’s there, he meets a distant relation, the beautiful Rachel, Countess Sangaletti. Philip is amazed to hear that Ambrose & Rachel have married & they are living in her villa in Naples. Philip is jealous but soon his jealousy turns to concern as Ambrose’s letters become mysterious. There are hints of poison & madness. Ambrose’s final letter, delivered as Philip is already on his way to Naples to find out what is going on, is just a few scribbled lines.

For God’s sake, come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel, my torment. If you delay, it may be too late.

Philip arrives in Naples to the news that Ambrose is dead & Rachel has already left Naples, no one knows her destination. The scenes in Italy are beautifully done. Philip, young, stiff, very English, has travelled from cold, windswept, provincial Cornwall to warm, sensual, cosmopolitan Naples. He’s out of his depth. Shocked by the news of Ambrose’s death, suspicious of the servants at the villa & hostile to Signor Rainaldi, Rachel’s friend & lawyer, he is determined to find out the truth. Heartbroken, he returns to England to hear from his godfather, Nick Kendall, that Rachel has arrived in England & wants to visit. Ambrose hadn’t changed his will on his marriage so Philip has inherited everything. Rachel has nothing. Philip is immediately suspicious of her motives.

Once she arrives, however, he is beguiled by Rachel. She captivates everyone she meets – apart from Philip’s childhood friend, Louise Kendall, who is jealous in her turn. Philip becomes increasingly infatuated with Rachel, culminating with his desire to give her the property outright when he becomes his own master on his 25th birthday. But there are still questions & doubts. Ambrose’s family has a history of brain fevers, maybe madness. His illness in Italy was similar to a brain fever & his paranoid letters could have been a result of this. Rachel is an enthusiastic & knowledgeable gardener & brews herbal tisanas & remedies. Did she poison Ambrose? If she knew he hadn’t changed his will, there would be no point. But, did she know? She presents herself as a heartbroken widow, she plays the part well, but is she just trying to influence Philip to give her an allowance? Then, stories begin to circulate of the life she led with her first husband, a dissolute gambler who was killed in a duel. By now, Philip is in thrall to Rachel & desperate to marry her. The scene is set for the final tragedy.

I shall become a Justice of the Peace, as Ambrose was, & also be returned, one day, to Parliament. I shall continue to be honoured & respected, like all my family before me. Farm the land well, look after the people. No one will ever guess the burden of blame I carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty? Maybe I shall learn that too, in Purgatory.

This is a fantastic read, full of suspense. The romance of Cornwall, an unreliable, impulsive narrator, an enigmatic heroine & those unanswered questions. Du Maurier was a superb storyteller & this is one of her most successful novels. If you haven’t already read it, you’re in for a treat.