Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

I loved ‘Thornyhold’ every bit as much as I had expected. And maybe even a little more.

Geillis  was a lonely child, the only daughter of undemonstrative parents, but her godmother, a herbalist and maybe a white witch, understood and showed her the magic in the world that she had always wanted to see:

“Everything, suddenly, seemed outlined in light. The dog-daisies, white and gold, and taller than I was, stirred and swayed above my head as if combed through by a strong breeze. In its wake the air stilled again, thick with scents. The birds stopped singing, the grasshoppers were silent. I sat there, as still as a snail on the stem, in the middle of a full and living world and saw it for the first time, and for the first time knew myself to be a part of it.

She sank down beside me on the grass. She seemed to manage it without disturbing the dog-daisies. she ran a forefinger up the stem of one daisy, and a ladybird came off it on the finger and clung there.

“Look,” she said. “Quickly. count the spots.”

I had loved Gilly from the start, and I was as captivated by her godmother and by the magic in the world as she was.

ThornyholdThat visit was magical, but life was difficult.

Gilly had to leave university early to look after her newly widowed father; and when he died she found herself alone in the world, with no job, little money, and no idea how she should live.

Until she inherited Thornyhold, her godmother’s woodland cottage, and just enough money to live on.

Gilly fell in love with her home, and so did I, as Mary Stewart described everything that she saw, everything that she felt so beautifully.

I would love to curl up and read in the bedroom:

“After what I had seen downstairs, the bathroom was a surprise. It was a big room with two tall windows giving on the back, or south side of the house. In each with a wide window seat, set in the depth of the wall. The fireplace was delicate, with pretty flowered tiles. A bow-fronted chest did duty as a dressing-table, and a deep cupboard beside the fireplace stood open, showing the hanging-room of a big wardrobe. The bed was double, and high. The carpet was a soft green, lining the room, as it were, with the woods outside. By one of the windows was an easy chair. A lovely room.”

I would love to step outside:

“All that remained of the original plan was the broad flagged wall that ran straight from the house, bisecting the lawn, to a belvedere at the river’s edge. This was a paved half-moon, edged with a low balustrade, holding a pair of curved stone benches. Between these a shallow flight of steps led down to the water  where just below the surface could be seen a row of stepping-stones that would, in summer or a low water, be uncovered. On the opposite bank willows trailed their hair in the shallows, and golden flakes of fallen leaves turned idly on the current before floating downstream. Coppices of hazel framed the entrance to an overgrown forest ride stretching up through the trees.”

Gilly’s story works wonderfully as an ‘inheriting a house book’ and could stand happily alongside books like ‘The Scent of Water’ by Elizabeth Goudge, ‘The House on the Cliff’ by D E Stevenson, ‘The Heir’ by Vita SackvilleWest …. and if you can think of others that I might not have read I’d love to know …..

This is one of Mary Stewart’s later works, and there is less action and intrigue than there is in her earlier works of romantic suspense, but the more thoughtful, more contemplative feel of this book works wonderfully.

There is a little mystery.

Gilly finds that she has inherited a book of spells and a black cat named Hodge. Was her godmother really a witch? Why is the housekeeper so interested?  What is happening in the house?

There is a little romance too.

It’s engaging, but it does become a little silly at times, and the plot is not quite as strong as the writing in the latter part of the story.

I loved following Gilly’s progress , I loved seeing the world through her eyes, and the way that the pieces fell into place was wonderful.

I suspect that there were loose ends, and unanswered questions, but I’m not going to worry about them; because I loved that heart and soul of this book.

Sixes

It was Jo’s idea a couple of years ago, and now it’s become an annual event – celebrate the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

Not quite as easy as it looks. I’ve tweaked the categories to suit my reading style, and because I wanted to push disappointments to one site and simply celebrate some of the books I’ve read and the books I’ve discovered.

Here are my six sixes:

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Six books illuminated by wonderful voices from the twentieth century

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield
The English Air by D E Stevenson
The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goodge
Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

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Six books from the present that took me to the past

The Visitors by Rebecca Maskell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey
Turning the Stones by Debra Daley
The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric
Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray

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Six books from the past that pulled me back there

Wired Love by Ella Cheever Thayer
Esther Waters by George Moore
Griffith Gaunt by Charles Reade
Nine Pounds of Luggage by Maud Parrish
The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

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Six books that introduced me to interesting new authors

Wake by Anna Hope
Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin
The Lie of You: I Will Have What is Mine by Jane Lythell
Mr Perrin and Mr Traill by Hugh Walpole
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
None-Go-By by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick

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Six successful second meeting with authors

The Auction Sale by C H B Kitchin
The Twelfth Hour by Ada Leverson
A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon
Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell
Mrs Westerby Changes Course by Elizabeth Cadell
Her by Harriet Lane

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Six used books added to my shelves

The Heroes of Clone by Margaret Kennedy
The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken
Portrait of a Village by Francis Brett Young
The West End Front by Matthew Sweet
The Stag at Bay by Rachel Ferguson
Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Boorman

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Do think about putting your own sixes – it’s a great way of perusing your reading, and I’d love to read more lists.

Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart

I fell in love with a Scottish island when I was eight years old.

Looking back it was a mad thing for my parents to do, travelling so far across country with two young children, but that wanted to see Scotland, and they had been guided to a particular place by a very good friend. So if it was madness it was the very best kind of madness, and if I had to live outside Cornwall I should still choose to live on a Scottish Island.

That’s what drew me to ‘Stormy Petrel, even though I knew it was one of Mary Stewart’s later novels and not considered to be her best work; it was set on a fictional Scottish island, and island very close to and very like mine.

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The story opened in a Cambridge where Rose, who write poetry for love and science fiction for money, was  a tutor of English. A newspaper advertisement caught her eye: an advertisement for cottage on the Hebridean island of Moila. It sounded perfect. Rose could have the time and space to write and her doctor brother, a keen wildlife photographer,  would love to take pictures of the rare birds that nested on the island.

Rose travelled north before her brother, and she found the island and the cottage to be everything she hoped them to be.

When Rose wakes in the night to the sounds of someone moving about downstairs she assumes that her brother has arrived. But he hasn’t, and another man is making tea in the kitchen. Both are startled, but the intruder is quick to reassure Rose, explaining that he had lived there with  foster parents, he had fallen out of touch, he had no idea that they had moved away. And then another man arrived. His explanation was that he was a visiting geologist, he had been camping, and when the storm carried his tent away he had come to look for shelter where he saw lights.

The two men claimed not to have met, but there was something in their manners towards each other that told rose that they had, that something was amiss. Rose made a sensible decision: she withdrew to her room, leaving the pair to make the best of things downstairs.

When Rose woke again the storm and her house-guests had gone. She thought that was the end of things, but of course it was only the beginning ….

I found a lot to like in ‘Stormy Petrel’.

Moila is so beautifully and lovingly described that I was transported, and I didn’t doubt for one second that it was inspired by a place that Mary Stewart knew and loved.

 ” It is not a large island, perhaps nine miles by five, with formidable cliffs to the north-west that face the weather like the prow of a ship. From the steep sheep-bitten turf at the head of these cliffs the land slopes gently down towards a glen where the island’s only sizeable river runs seawards out of a loch cupped in a shallow basin among low hills. Presumably the loch – lochan, rather, for it is not large – is fed by springs eternally replenished by the rain, for nothing flows into it except small burns seeping through rush and bog myrtle, which spread after storms into sodden quagmires of moss. But the outflow is perennially full, white water pouring down to where the moor cleaves open and lets it fall to the sea.”

I loved that Rose came to love her island as I loved mine, that she appreciated that things that made it so special. And I was pleased that she proved herself to be sensible, capable and practical.

I was pleased that the romance was low-key, and that the resolution of the story was gentle, with future possibilities simply suggested.

I was less pleased that the suspense was low-key, that it became clear quickly who was the hero and who was the villain, that the villain was not so very wicked, and that there was very little mystery to be resolved or danger to be faced.

And so I loved my trip to Moila, I loved the company, but the story – it needed something more.

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

Since I discovered what a wonderful writer Mary Stewart was – just a few years ago, though my mother had recommended her books many years earlier – I’ve noticed that many readers name ‘Nine Coaches Waiting’ as a particular favourite. Now that I’ve read ‘Nine Coaches Waiting’ I can understand why, and I think that it might be my favourite too.

It’s not a realistic, real-world story; but it is a glorious entertainment

And it’s a ‘governess novel’ – a kind of book that I love

3397071The story begins as Linda Martin lands in Paris on a cold, grey, rainy day. She was the son of an English father and a French mother, but they died when she was still quite young, and so she finished her education and became a governess inside an orphanage.

When the chance of a job in France appeared she was thrilled at the prospect of returning to the country she hadn’t seen for many years, and she secured the position. An English girl had been requested, and so she thought it sensible not to mention that she spoke the language fluently.

I warmed to Linda from the start, and I saw such promise in the story that was unfolding.

Her charge was Philippe, who  also lost both his parents in a tragic accident. He was the heir to his father’s title, and to his estates, and he lived in the family home that he inherited, the vast and ornate Château Valmy,  in the French Alps.

Linda was enchanted by the house, by its beauty and history, but she also saw that it was not a happy home.

She warmed to Philippe though, and a strong bond grew up between them.

He didn’t care for his Uncle Leon and Aunt Heloise, but Linda told herself that was just because they weren’t warm or demonstrative, because their lifestyle wasn’t suited to being parental figures, because they weren’t his beloved parents …..

Linda is shaken when two accidents, one in the countryside and one at home, come close to taking Philippe’s life. She knows then that something is wrong then, but she doesn’t know who to trust. She only knows that she will do whatever she can to protect Philippe.

She wanted to trust Raoul,  the dark and dashing young man who had her utterly smitten, but she knew that he was Leon’s son, and that he might have had a hand in those accidents ….

I’d love to say more, but I mustn’t give away any more of the story than I have already.

But I must say what makes this book so special.

Mary Stewart always evokes the settings of her stories wonderfully well, and in a way that feels so natural; she does that here with the loveliest of settings. I was transported to the big house, to the nearby village, to the countryside. I loved it all.

The cast of characters was wonderful. Linda was plucky – but not too plucky – and I found it easy to understand her feeling and how she reacted to people and situations.  Her relationship with Philippe was caught perfectly, and he was an utterly real child; he understood what was happening, but he needed guidance  and support; and he needed a friend. The relationship between Linda and Philippe, and the way it evolved, was lovely, and exactly right.

All of the characters were simply drawn; but they had such depth. Uncle Leon was particularly interesting; a strong powerful man, confined to a wheelchair after an accident, and constrained by the role he had to play as his nephew’s trustee …..

The story was perfectly judged; mystery, suspense, romance, and just a dash of the gothic,  woven together by a craftswoman at the height of her powers. And there was a nice balance of elements that were recognisably ‘Mary Stewart’ and elements that made this story distinctive. It was full of wonderful details; and I particularly liked the way that the small debt to Jane Eyre was acknowledged.

As events played out I was so caught up, so concerned for Linda and Philippe. I wasn’t sure that she was doing the right thing, but I knew that she was acting was the best of intentions. I could think of no better alternative, and I had no more idea than she did, or who she should or should not trust.

I realised, just a little before she did, that a new governess with no home and no family of her own might be a perfect scapegoat ….

The tension grew and grew. I knew how I wanted the story to play out, but I wasn’t sure that it could.

It did. I think ….

Reading Books: Past, Present & Future

I have to do this from time to time. I have to celebrate the books I’ve read, organise the books I’m reading, and think about what might come next.

Past present and future …

The past …..

R.I.P VIII ended at Halloween and, though I didn’t read many of the books I lined up at the start of the season, I was very pleased with the eight books I did read.

RIP8main1My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart
The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
Treveryan by Angela Du Maurier
Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll
The Unforgiving by Charlotte Cory
Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen
The Blackheath Séance Parlour by Alan Williams

I’ve nearly finished Burial Rites by Hannah Kent too, and I’ve made a start on Deborah Harkness’s Shadow of Night.

Two of my RIP books – Treveryan and The Unforgiving slotted into my Century of Books, and I passed the 80% mark in the middle of last month.

The present …..

I have a few books in progress.

I spotted a beautiful 30th anniversary edition of The Sunne in Splendor in the library a few weeks ago, and that made up my mind to re-read it for my Century of Books. I loved it years ago, I love it now, and I’m into the final act.

winters-night-jpgI was warmly recommended Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller to fill a difficult year – 1979 in my century of books – I was intrigued, I ordered a copy from the library, and then I discovered a readalong. Clearly I was meant to read this book, I started to read last night, and I am already smitten.

I’m re-reading Angel by Elizabeth Taylor too, in a lovely new hardback edition. It won’t fit into my century, but it was too lovely to resist and I have books that will fit lined up. Books like And Then You Came by Ann Bridge for 1948, A Little Love, A Little Learning by Nina Bawden for 1965, High Rising by Angela Thirkell for 1933 ….

I had a few books to choose from for 1933, but when I learned that Christmas at High Rising was on the was my mind was made up.

AusReading Month badge1901, on the other hand, was a tricky year. In the end I decided to re-read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, and again it seemed to be meant, because I discovered that this was Australian Reading Month.  A survey of my shelves found books by Eleanor Dark, Kathleen Susannah Pritchard and Henry Handel Richardson that I’d love to read. Or I could re-read Oscar and Lucinda or The Thorn Birds, either of which I could slot into my Century of Books ….

More books than I could hope to read, but it’s good to have choices!

The future …

I can’t think much beyond finishing my century at the moment. I’m clearing the decks as much as I can to get that done – no more book-buying and no more library reservations this year, because I need to focus on the books I have already.

But I bought The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, before the I put those restrictions in place, and they are going the first books of  my new project – of a year of reading the books that call me …

My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart

Mary-Stewart-RW1I have travelled to Greece by book, and I have been on a grand adventure with a lovely heroine, to celebrate Mary Stewart Reading Week.

The story began with a young woman, Camilla Haven, sitting outside a café in Athens, writing a letter to a friend. She had come on holiday alone, after parting company with her fiancé and after the friend who was going to accompany her had an accident, and though she was proud of herself for striking out alone she was a little bored. “Nothing ever happens to me,” she wrote.

But something was about to happen. Of course it was!

In an extraordinary case of mistaken identity Camilla found herself in possession of keys to a car to be delivered to “Monsieur Simon” in Delphi. It was, the deliverer of the keys told her before beating a rapid retreat, “a matter of life and death.” Camilla had no idea where to return the keys, she was intriguded, she was concerned, and she had planned to visit Delphi; and so she decided that she would deliver the car.

The narrow twisting roads, and the local drivers, weren’t at all what she was used to, and along the way she found herself needing to be rescued. She was saved by an English schoolteacher. A man named Simon. He knew nothing about the hire car, and he didn’t think he was the man Camilla was looking for, but he was travelling to Delphi too, and so they joined forces. And they got on very well.

Simon had come to Greece to find out more about his brother, Michael, who had worked for the British intelligence service during the war had been posted to Greece to help local resistance groups during the German occupation. Michael had died in Greece, and fourteen years later, when his father died, Simon found Michael’s last letter home. And he realised that the tone of the letter and the story that he had been told about his brother’s death didn’t match. He had come to Greece to find out, to try to reconcile the two.

And that, of course, was the beginning of a wonderful mystery, that was all the more wonderful because it was so firmly rooted in the war, in Greek history and culture.

1135279It took a little time for the story to capture me. At first it seemed a little too “typically Mary Stewart”, the car trip went on just a little too long, and I didn’t like the crisis that brought Camilla and Simon together perpetuated the stereotype that women drivers can’t reverse.

But I liked Camilla from the start, and it was lovely to watch her finding her feet and gaining in confidence as she coped with all kinds of things. And I liked Simon, who treated her with courtesy and respect, and whose faith in her was wonderful. Their dialogues were lovely, they read so naturally, and I enjoyed watching their relationship grow. That relationship might have been a nicely understated romance, or it might have been a firm new friendship between two people who had a space in their life that needed filling. I was so pleased that, even at the end, Mary Stewart didn’t offer a definitive answer to that particular question.

But it is the setting, so vividly evoked and so beautifully described, that made this story sing. I never doubted that Mary Stewart knew and loved Greece and everything about it. All of her books that I have read bring their settings to life, but none of them prepared me for the wonderful richness and depth that I would find in “My Cousin Michael.”

The plot built, slowly and steadily to a dramatic ending. It balanced a natural progression with some unexpected developments so very well. And in the final pages the evil of the villain and the perilous situation that Camilla found herself in were horribly, horribly real. My heart was in my mouth.

I’m sure I could pick out little faults if I wanted to. Contrivances, coincidences, that kind of thing. But I don’t want to, because when the story caught me I stayed caught – hook, line and sinker – to the very end. Mary Stewart does what she does very, very well in this book. I don’t particularly like the description “romantic suspense, ” but it does fit, and I can’t think of a better one.

I think this might be my favourite of her books that I’ve read, and now I am eager to read the two other novels she set in Greece.

As The Evenings Draw In, R.I.P. VIII Begins…

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“Stories can make us look back over our shoulders and question every creak and groan on a dark, quiet night. Stories can cause our hearts to race with ever-increasing tension as we forgo sleep to rush towards a surprising conclusion. Stories can make us suspicious of every character as we challenge the protagonist to be the first to solve the crime. Stories can make us sleep with the lights on, make us pull the covers just a little bit tighter, and can make every shadow seem more menacing than they ever have before….

…. there is something delicious about the ability of the printed word to give us a fright. At no time of the year is this more of a delight than when Summer heat turns to Autumn chill as the days become ever darker.”

The annual invitation from Stainless Steel Droppings to read ….

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Dark Fantasy
Gothic
Horror
Supernatural

…. is not to be resisted, and I have a wonderful pool of books on hand ….

The Skull and the Nightingale by Michael Irwin

“When Richard Fenwick returns to London, his wealthy godfather, James Gilbert, has an unexpected proposition. Gilbert has led a sedate life in Worcestershire, but feels the urge to experience, even vicariously, the extremes of human feeling: love, passion, and something much more sinister …”

My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart (for Mary Stewart Reading Week)

“Nothing ever happened to Camilla Haven — until a stranger approached her in a crowded Athens café, handed her the keys to a black car parked by the curb, and whispered, “A matter of life and death.”….”

Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen

“A female killer stalks the streets of London, sleeping with young men before slashing their throats and mutilating their bodies. The crimes have baffled the police and enraged Londoners, who demand the murderer’s arrest. Mary, Duchess of Dove, a gentle young widow who is beloved by all who know her, seems an unlikely suspect, but the clues all point to her ….”

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

“Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution ….”

The Unforgiving by Charlotte Cory

“The distinguished architect Edward Glass has been recently widowed – with great inconvenience to himself. He impulsively marries Mrs Elizabeth Cathcart, a young widow he knows almost nothing about ….”

The Bones of Paris by Laurie R King

“The missing person in question is Philippa Crosby, a twenty-two year old from Boston who has been living in Paris, modelling and acting. Her family became alarmed when she stopped all communications, and Stuyvesant agreed to track her down. He wholly expects to find her in the arms of some up-and-coming artist, perhaps experimenting with the decadent lifestyle …”

He Arrived at Dusk by Ruby Ferguson

“From the moment William Mertoun arrives to catalogue the library at Colonel Barr’s old mansion on the desolate Northumbrian moors, he senses something is terribly wrong. Barr’s brother Ian has just died, mysteriously and violently, and the Colonel himself is hidden away in a locked room, to which his sinister nurse denies all access ….”

The Family Thief by Annabel Markova

“As Iolanthe and Carol grow up, Iolanthe begins to wonder how well she ever knew her foster sister, and soon her loyalties are tested to destruction in order to save her parents’ marriage, and the family itself ….”

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

“In 1878, two young stage magicians clash in the dark during the course of a fraudulent séance. From this moment on, their lives become webs of deceit and revelation as they vie to outwit and expose one another ….”

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

” Diana Bishop, descended from a line of powerful witches, and long-lived vampire Matthew Clairmont have broken the laws dividing creatures. When Diana discovered a significant alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library, she sparked a struggle in which they became bound. Now the fragile coexistence of witches, daemons, vampires and humans is dangerously threatened ….”

And I’ve pulled out my Virago ghost story anthologies too …

Now tell me, do you have seasonal reading plans?