Book Reviews: A Mary Stewart Double Bill

Book review

It seems ridiculous to write about these now, when they are imprinted in my mind as sunny summer reads. The wind is battering the windows and I got drenched earlier. It’s certainly no longer summer, but it will be nice to hark back to pleasant summer days for a while.

I’ve been slowly meandering my way through Mary Stewart’s novels over the last couple of years. They have been such a pleasant discovery, although I will admit I think they fall into the category of too much of a good thing. After an initial binge I have found it best to not read them back to back, in order to ensure maximum enjoyment. I very much hesitate to use the word formulaic, as her novels are far to delightful to be tarred with that brush, but there have, in the books i’ve read so far, been a number of beautiful, brave, young heroines caught up in thrilling situations in gorgeous settings.

Regardless, I am yet to find one of her stories which has not gripped me from the start. I think I have read each of them in single sittings, no doubt at the expense of much productivity. As such she seemed a forgone conclusion in terms of holiday reading and Madam, Will You Talk? her debut novel was packed. Needless to say I took absolutely no heed of my own advice and a day after finishing that I was on the kindle burying myself in Thunder on the Right. 

Having read a few Mary Stewart novels in the past I did feel as though I could tell that Madam was an early novel. Don’t get me wrong, the story, pace and setting were all there, but to start with it had a slow beginning, with an ‘if I had only known  then what was to come’ vibe which irritated me slightly. There was also a companion to Charity the heroine, who had to be abandoned repeatedly at every point of the plot, which left me wondering why she was included in the novel in the first place.

Once it started though the plot got off to a rattling pace. Murky characters abound and I found myself frantically turning pages. What starts as a quiet holiday turns into an adventure for the young widow, Charity, as she becomes embroiled in helping a young boy. At first she just wants to help him have fun, but then as she spends more time with him she realises all is not as it seems and she finds herself enmeshed in a situation she doesn’t fully understand trying to protect him.

The twists and turns might not be completely unpredictable… But this book was just sheer fun to read. It is definitely one of my favourite of her novels.

Perhaps I was in a contrary mood when I read Thunder or perhaps I should have taken my own advice and left more of a gap between reading these two novels, but I didn’t enjoy this book as much.

In this novel published two years later in 1957, the lovely young heroine, Jennifer, is on a quiet holiday in France to visit her cousin whom she has not seen for many years. At the opening of the novel, she is reflecting on her earlier life (helpfully if not particularly interestingly filling us in on everything we need to know so far) when she is stunned to run in to her ex-lover whom she hasn’t seen in a few years. She then goes to visit her cousin in the convent in the mountains where she has been staying only to find out that her cousin died before Jennifer arrived. She is of course shocked and devastated by this but when the first pangs of grief leave her she starts to realise that something is wrong in the Convent. Jennifer is  determined to find out what is going on and what happened to her cousin. Various sinister characters try to shut her down.

Without giving spoilers away it is hard to explain exactly what I disliked about this novel, that stopped me from enjoying it in the same way as Stewart’s other novels. Part of how this thriller is resolved involves a character ending up in a scenario which seems somewhat darker than the rest of the novel. I would not have minded this but the consequences of this situation are not really looked into at all, and are sort of cast aside in the pursuit of a happy ending. This just did not work for me. I realise there are many unrealistic situations in any thriller, but for some reason this really bothered me and it detracted from my overall enjoyment. However, there was plenty of enjoyment to be had and I wouldn’t want my opinion to deter anyone from reading this.

As a small bonus, for me at least, both novels are set not long after the conclusion of the second world war and references to this are made in both books, which adds a little layer of depth and interest for me.

I look forward to my next Mary Stewart, either Airs Above Ground or The Crystal Cave if I stick to my to be read pile, but I think I’ll wait a while, perhaps, until I need cheered up on a bad day.

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Book haul: An unexpected birthday scoop

I had a lovely surprise visit to Waterstone’s on Sunday as a birthday present. I don’t normally let myself visit new bookstores as they are a bit expensive for my reading habits so this was a real treat for me. I picked up four books i’m really looking forward to opening. They all have really lovely cover art which I have tried to show.

 

The first book I picked up on entering the bookstore was Spinning Silver which I have been desperately excited for ever since I heard it was being published. I absolutely adored Naomi Novik’s previous offering Uprooted. This book seems to have the same fairytale-ish premise with another strong female lead character. I have very high hopes!

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I’ve had The Master and Margarita on my wishlist for a while and when I saw this copy I couldn’t resist picking it up. I’m usually pretty unsure about reading translated works, but since this excludes so many works I won’t be able to read otherwise I am trying to get over my silly reluctance.

I haven’t read any Ursula K. Le Guin before but I have long been planning to and this beautiful copy of the first four Earthsea books caught my eye as soon as I entered the Sci Fi and Fantasy section.

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My final pick was Emma. An Austen I only read for the first time last year. I tried it as a teenager and I just didn’t get it, I wasn’t ready to fully enjoy Austen’s portrayal of Emma’s character. I tried it again last year after re- reading Persuasion without much hope. I was so glad to be wrong. I read all of the, fairly long, novel in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down. I knew it was going to become a favourite read and have been on the lookout for a nice paper copy for a while now.

I think I did pretty well out of my birthday bookshop spree.

Book Review: The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude

I read this book late last year and wrote this up but never got around to posting it for some long forgotten reason.

I have now read my first British Library Crime Classic, The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude. It featured a rather endearing amateur detective: the local Vicar who is extremely fond of detective novels. I do so enjoy the name dropping of books characters are currently reading.

I don’t know if any golden age crime novels will ever live up to Agatha Christie’s in my mind, but this one provided an enjoyable afternoons reading on a Sunday. Basically, a young woman is accused of murdering her mean-tempered uncle during a storm.

I enjoyed this overall, there were lots of suspects discussed and discarded. I do have a little quibble however. I would have to read it again to be certain but I am not entirely sure that the author gave all the clues fairly in order to allow the reader to work out the solution their self before the finale. Of course I may have just missed them!

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the amateur sleuth and local police detective working together amicably although I was somewhat amused by just how much they could both deduce from footprints left during a heavy storm.

I thought it was worth posting this short comment when I found it sitting in my drafts, as the next post on my holiday reading will include my second British Library Crime Classic: The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley.

Based on these two novels I would highly recommend giving this collection of books a go if you have not already. Two new authors to me and both pleasant, fun reads. I’m sure there will be more uneven titles but I am certainly enjoying my foray so far.

 

My holiday reading: part one

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It has been quite some time since I have posted on here. Spiralling off into fanfiction is not a new affliction of mine but for my list of books read this year to still have been sitting at a low of one at the end of June is rather shocking.

As previously mentioned on here my to read pile has reached somewhat mammoth proportions. It has perhaps even become my Everest, or my white whale (although since Moby Dick is actually in the to read pile perhaps that description is a little to on the nose).

However, sunshine, beaches, precious little balconies and flights and coach rides beckoned. Is there a better time than a holiday to get back into reading?

Since my usual aim when reading, I am rather fond of making lists, is to read at least one new book a week for the year and to read at least one hundred titles: I really needed to get my skates on (Noel Streatfield is in the to read pile and Little Women is surely due a revisit?).

I brought with me, oh damn you baggage limits, a not inconsiderable pile of 15 paperbacks and my trusty kindle.

Perhaps it was that aura of calm and relaxation that always sweeps over one when escaping from real life, however briefly. From the start my reading was firmly at least 50 years in the past and there it stayed more or less and I must admit I deliberately kept away from anything that could be considered challenging or which could dampen my holiday spirit.

My holiday reading started, as it invariably does with a Christie. Slightly more impressively The Hollow was one I actually haven’t read before and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a Poirot, but one of the ones in which he doesn’t feature too heavily and I think the novel was probably the better for it. Decent characterisation and a good twist, that I only had an inkling of. The act of the denouement itself didn’t quite work for me, but that is a minor quibble. My holiday reading was practically book ended by Agatha as the second to last book was also hers, and the only re-read of my trip. They Came to Baghdad is one of her thrillers, although it still has a decent if bonkers whodunit element. I have read this book a couple of times and I always find it fascinating because outside of the completely insane plot, there is the author’s depiction of Baghdad and travelling and archaeology which are all things she had an intimate knowledge of. If there are any Christie fans who have not read Come Tell Me How You Live, her archaeological memoir, I highly recommend that and They Came to Baghdad is a very interesting novel to read as a companion and is, if nothing else, highly entertaining.

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Having started my holiday with a whodunit I proceeded to binge on them for the next few days. I read my second “Death in” book by M. M. Kaye: Death in the Andamans which I actually really enjoyed. From what I understand, Kaye had actually visited all the locations of her mystery books and I think this does show in the scene she sets. There was a fascinating little author’s note at the start of my copy detailing how the novel came to be. The novel was conceived and started in the 20s but not published until much later. It is certainly a unique location and the novel really utilises this setting.

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I read my first Michael Innes book too. It was a grubby green penguin I had picked up in a secondhand bookshop which made the cut for holiday reading primarily due to its small and slim size. Death at the President’s Lodgings is the first of the Inspector Appleby mysteries and I believe the best known. I was thoroughly immersed in this, enjoying the academic setting at which the author, clearly thoroughly knowledgeable, was poking gentle fun. Indeed, Michael Innes was a pseudonym for J.I.M Stewart who’s impressive academic career can be seen above. Amusingly, one of the fellows of the fictitious St. Anthony’s also writes mystery novels under a pseudonym to the derision of his peers and the elation of his students.

 

Disaster struck while I was reading this. I went to turn the page and suddenly leapt from p90 to p155. How this was not immediately noticeable from the binding I do not know. My bargain was clearly not as much of a bargain as I had hoped. Thank goodness for WiFi and the kindle! Fifteen minutes in a WiFi hotspot and I could resume my reading. It may be of interest, that in the UK at least, several of Innes’ books are fairly cheap on the kindle.

I certainly didn’t guess who the murderer was, and the explanations are certainly entertaining. Whether it holds ups as a credible set of events i’m not so sure. All in all Hamlet, Revenge the second Appleby adventure is on my kindle now, and I will undoubtedly read more of Innes’ work but whether he will topple any of my favourites seems unlikely.

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I have had to divide this into a few posts as I have enjoyed a whole spate of books over the last two weeks. More to follow in the next few days.

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Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Book review
The Bear and the Nightingale is Katherine Arden’s initial novel, but I wouldn’t have guessed it was her debut. The book flows beautifully, and I was swept up into the harsh Russian winter.
This book weaves together original characters, old Russian folklore and Russian history. Perhaps it was my deplorable lack of knowledge of the two latter but I felt they blended together seamlessly.
My only issue was the multiple names and nicknames all the characters had, doubtless that is more natural, but it made it hard to keep track of the characters at times, especially as there was a large cast of characters. If I had a greater knowledge of Russian history or literature perhaps this wouldn’t have been such a problem.
Whilst this story is about Morozko, the Frost King who’s fairy tale is told near the start of this book, this is really the story of a strong-willed girl growing up in a culture where by being a woman she can never have a fraction of the freedom she wants. Vasya is stubborn, wild and independent and neither her Father or her nurse or her older siblings can keep her penned up and demure for long. The really interesting part of this to me is that none of these characters are cast as villains, as is sometimes the case in modern books set in the past. They love Vasya and want what is best for her and to protect her. Indeed as a reader at times I was endeared by her family and at other times frustrated.
There is a fantasy element from almost the start, when it is revealed that Marina, Vasya’s Mother, has some magic running through her and has a little of the sight. The novel opens before Vasya is born with Marina realising that she is pregnant and that this daughter is going to be special. Both her husband and Dunya, the children’s nurse, urge her to get rid of the child as they think she is not strong enough to bear them. She refuses and dies in childbirth, and there is a sense of this hanging over Vasya as she grows up.
Vasya too, has the sight and sometimes has troubling dreams but she can also see all manner of creatures, like the household spirits, which are invisible to everyone else. In an area where Christianity is beginning to take hold, this starts to cause problems, as the old spirits start to fade as people begin to stop believing.
There are evil spirits as well as good ones, yet the antagonists I found most chilling were two people who enter Vasya’s life as she grows up. Yes, they are influenced by the supernatural, but what they become as the novel develops is through their own decisions, and the different ways fear affected them both was quite chilling.
This book is the first in a trilogy, and the second is to be published in December. I will definitely be reading further, and I look forward to seeing how this world is developed and to find out more about Vasya and her siblings.
I read Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless earlier in the year and I think if anyone read and enjoyed that they may like this different take on Russian folklore set in a different time. If anything I enjoyed Arden’s novel more as I felt I empathised more with the characters and Deathless felt like quite an uneven read. This may also appeal to fans of Naomi Novik’s beautiful Uprooted. 
The Bear and the Nightingale builds slowly and never moves at break neck speed. Personally, I found that to be a positive, but I can understand that the relatively slow pacing and the lyrical, fairy tale tone throughout would not be to everyone’s taste.
This has made an excellent addition to my autumnal reading, and is the second book I have read for the RIPXII challenge, the first being Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird.
I was lucky enough to be given a copy of this in exchange for an honest book review by Random House publishing, through Netgalley.
#RIPXII
#Netgalley

My Week in Books, 8th Oct

This has been a fairly productive reading week for me and so far I have managed to steer clear of any re-reads which are always my downfall when it comes to working through my to be reads.

One day I’ll work up the courage to do a post on my TBR pile, and gather them all together and count them. Possibly the shame and guilt will cause me to do something about it, but I do so enjoy buying books. So I doubt it.

This week I finished Josephine Pullein- Thompson’s DCI Flecker trilogy of crime novels. Pullein- Thompson and her sisters and Mother were famous for their numerous horse stories. I have to be honest, I haven’t read any of those, however this trilogy is available cheaply on Kindle if you don’t mind the odd error in the print. They are quite horsey but it doesn’t take over the story. There are several mentions of fox hunting, particularly in the first novel, which I couldn’t quite make my peace with. But the novels were written in the fifties so I tried to let it wash over me. The puzzles were never particularly enthralling but they formed my comfort reading for the week. The trio starts with Gin and Murder. 

I also recently joined Netgalley, and I just received my first book for review, the Russian fairytale The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden which I have been engrossed in for the last couple of days, even if it has shown up my complete lack of knowledge of Russian history and folklore. I will hopefully finish and digest this and put up a review in the next week or so.

The only other book, although it is hefty enough, which has entered our household this week is The Victorians by A. N. Wilson. The blurb sounds interesting:

“People, not abstract ideas, make history, and nowhere is this more revealed than in A. N. Wilson’s superb portrait of the Victorians, in which hundreds of different lives have been pieced together to tell a story- one which is still unfinished in our day.”

The Other Half bought it for his studies, after I heard it mentioned somewhere, but I think I will add it to my to be read list as well. I always feel less guilty reading non-fiction, maybe it feels more productive? Or at least that’s how I justify it to myself.

My only reading failure this week is my continued stall on Ilona Andrew’s Magic Shifts. I need to make it clear, this is entirely my fault rather than that of the book. I love Ilona Andrews’ books with their strong female heroines, magical weirdness and great supporting characters. I flew through the three Innkeeper novels (which I would highly recommend) at the start of the year. The most well-known series is that of Kate Daniels starting with Magic Bites for anyone unfamiliar with the husband and wife authors. They are great urban fantasy novels with lots of world mythology thrown in. I had fallen somewhat behind in this lengthy series and when I recently had a fortnight off I decided to read it in full. This currently consists of 9 novels, 1 tie-in novel, 4 novellas and several short stories. I am on the second last book, and so I have been for the last fortnight. I think I have run out of steam after reading so many in close succession. I may admit temporary defeat and come back to this series in a month or two.

Has anyone else read anything good this week? Or can any Ilona Andrews fans get me back into the right mindset to finish this fun series?

 

Book Review: Elizabeth of the Garrett Theatre by Gwendoline Courtney

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Another blast into the past for a book review of this charming children’s novel by Gwendoline Courtney, originally published in 1948.

It was initially published as Stepmother and then in the US as Those Verney Girls and re-published in Britain as Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre. Unusually, I actually prefer the changes to the original title. I wonder if it had only been titled Stepmother if I would have sought it out?

This is the story of the four Verney sisters: the eldest, quiet and shy Alison who adores her Father; Elizabeth, the heroine, who is stubborn and wild and loves to act; Susan who has no imagination; and the youngest Georgie who is full of attitude and always getting into scrapes.

Their Mother died young and the girls have been allowed to run wild ever since. Their Father loves them but other than encouraging them to read widely leaves them to bring themselves up.

Their lives are interrupted by their Father having to go on a business trip to America, and while he is gone the stern housekeeper gives notice that she is leaving. In the midst of the chaos and excitement this brings, a letter from Mr Verney arrives. He will soon be home and he is bringing a wife.

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The novel revolves around the four girls learning to live with their new stepmother and slowly beginning to enjoy a life where they have to abide by some rules. Alison and Elizabeth start to grow up and develop. Alison to overcome some of her timidity and Elizabeth to learn to control her temper and think about her future. Susan remains placidly the same and Georgie provides copious amounts of comic relief. She is one of the highlights of the novel with a new plan for when she is grown up every other week and an impressive ability to say the most inappropriate thing at any given time.

As can be guessed from the title of the re-print amateur dramatics abound, and they have none of the tediousness they can have in some novels, where I tend to skip plays and recitals to get back to the plot. The protagonists also have to contend with their village neighbours who look down on the wild Verney girls, and their Stepmother’s family who brings some more surprises into the mix.

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Overall, I found this to be a delightful, gentle read where everything is tied up neatly in the end. It’s perfect to enjoy curled up with a cup of tea on a rainy day. I’ve read this twice this year.

Sadly, this novel is not in print, although copies do become available fairly frequently at not completely horrendous prices. I think I got my copy for less than £10. If I have tempted anyone to try Gwendoline Courtney, Sally’s Family is also well worth tracking down. A number of her novels have been re-published by Girls Gone By Publishing although sadly Sally’s Family is no longer in print and they have not yet re-published Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre. I wonder which title they would pick if they did?

Has anyone else read this book or any others by Courtney? Are there any other of her titles that would be highly recommended to read?