Shiny New Books


The fall issue of Shiny New Books came out this week, and as usual there are so many tempting titles to explore…it’s going to keep me busy for some time. In the blowing my own horn department, I had two pieces included:

Suspense with Style: The Novels of Mary Stewart is in the BookBuzz section. I wanted to call attention to the new Chicago Review Press editions of Stewart’s suspense novels, but that wasn’t allowed in the Reprints section (UK editions only in there). I enjoyed pulling together some of my earlier posts about this favorite author and adding a teaser for her first novel, Madam, Will You Talk?

My review of Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories celebrates the new UK edition from Virago Children’s Classics. Now readers on both sides of the pond can enjoy these delightfully funny and magical stories.

MadamTalk  SerialGarden


I do hope you’ll check them out, and sample other shiny new delights as well.

Darkness in Delphi: My Brother Michael

Mary Stewart, My Brother Michael (1960)

Mary Stewart is rightly acclaimed for creating wonderfully robust settings in her books, which serve as much more than mere stage backdrops to the action. So strong is the sense of place, sometimes, that the setting almost becomes a character or a plot device in its own right.

Such is the case with My Brother Michael, which I picked up in honor of Mary Stewart Reading Week. The place is Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece, once considered the navel of the world and still one of the most numinous sites of the Western world. While telling one of her thrilling tales of mystery and danger, Stewart also manages to evoke the spirit of Greece, both ancient and modern, in a strikingly vivid way. From a memorable scene of the difficulties of passing a bus on a mountain road, to explorations of the god-haunted landscape of Parnassus, to stories of some of the tragedies incurred during and after the Second World War, she makes us feel that we have encountered this brilliant, desolate land, and experienced some of its treasures — and its burdens.

I said, “It’s this confounded country. It does things to one — mentally and physically and, I suppose, morally. The past is so living and the present so intense and the future so blooming imminent. The light seems to burn life into you twice as intensely as anywhere else I’ve known. I suppose that’s why the Greeks did what they did so miraculously, and why they could stay themselves through twenty generations of slavery that would have crushed any other race on earth.”

To summarize the plot of a Mary Stewart novel is to spoil many of its surprises, so I’ll just say that our heroine, Camilla, traveling alone in Greece after the breakup of a bad relationship, gets into more than she’d bargained for when she takes an unusual opportunity to transport herself from Athens to Delphi. After she meets up with our hero, an Englishman hunting for some clues to still-unanswered questions around the death of his brother during the war, she definitely loses her right to complain that “Nothing ever happens to me.” One is reminded to be careful what one wishes for — the gods may be listening.

One quibble I had with the narrative was that Camilla is supposed not to understand Greek, yet she reports in great detail conversations that were held in that language, with every nuance of emotion and expression included. This is supposed to be because they were translated for her afterwards, but that explanation is not terribly convincing; indeed, she often is more engaged with what is going on than she should be, were she really as ignorant as she is supposed to be. There is one major plot point that turns on her lack of understanding of the language, but perhaps that could have been dealt with in another way. I know that highly detailed first-person narratives generally require some suspension of disbelief, but this extra bit of implausibility bothered me just slightly.

As in another Stewart novel with a Greek setting, The Moon-Spinners, the romance in My Brother Michael was more implied than explicit. I tend to like them that way, since instant attraction seems more plausible to me than instant falling-into-arms and declaring undying love. (There is never much time in these novels for anything other than instantaneous romance, since the action moves at a pretty fast clip, and most of the time our hero and heroine are busy with pursuing bad guys and other distractions.) Here, aside from a charming teaser at the end, much is left to our imaginations. Sometimes it’s better that way.

Overall, this was one of my favorite Mary Stewart books so far, with its seamless integration of plot, setting and character, and one that I would definitely pick up again. If you’re looking for an intelligent, entertaining and suspenseful read, this is a good place to start.



Quick Quotes: The Crystal Cave

Arthurian Mary Stewart Merlin

“But there’s nothing in this world that I’m not ready to see and learn, and no god that I’m not ready to approach in his own fashion. I told you that truth was the shadow of God. If I am to use it, I must know who He is. Do you understand me?”

“How could I? What god are you talking about?”

“I think there is only one. Oh, there are gods everywhere, in the hollow hills, in the wind and the sea, in the very grass we walk on and the air we breathe, and in the bloodstained shadows where men like Belasius wait for them. But I believe there must be one who is God Himself, like the great sea, and all the rest of us, small gods and men and all, like rivers, we all come to Him in the end.”

Merlin, to his servant Cadal in The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

Suspense with Style: Four by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting (Morrow, 1959)

Mary Stewart, The Ivy Tree (Morrow, 1962)

Mary Stewart, The Moon-Spinners (Morrow, 1963)

Mary Stewart, This Rough Magic (Morrow, 1964) 


Mary Stewart romantic suspense

It’s always a great pleasure to discover an author whose books have somehow passed you by, especially if there are plenty of them. Such is the case with Mary Stewart, whose romantic suspense novels just never swam into my ken until now.

Fortunately, good books never go out of date. This summer I read four Stewarts in quick succession and found them effortlessly readable yet refreshingly literate. With exotic settings, independent heroines, and tricky plots, they make perfect vacation reading. And in honor of Mary Stewart Reading Week, hosted by Gudrun’s Tights, here are some thoughts that I hope will interest those who haven’t yet discovered this wonderful author, as well as those who know and love her.

Each of these four books starts with a young woman, usually alone, making a journey to some beautiful, rather remote spot (Corfu, Northumberland, Alpine France, Crete) where she expects to settle into a holiday or a new job. She then finds that there is something unsavory going on (smuggling, treason, identity theft, attempted murder, kidnapping) and becomes involved in trying to defeat the villain(s). Serious dangers to life and limb ensue, as she tries to rescue the victim/find the treasure/puzzle out the crime, but naturally she comes through in the end, with a new love interest with whom she has made a connection in the midst of all the mayhem.

While the novels do follow a certain pattern, they are not formulaic. Each one is written in a distinctive voice and with precise attention to detail, which makes you feel as though you have really been to the places she describes. They also are pleasantly literary: This Rough Magic centers around an old house inhabited by a Shakespearean actor obsessed with The Tempest; Nine Coaches Waiting takes its title and organization from a quotation from The Revengers’ Tragedy; The Ivy Tree is named after an old song and has a strain of ancient folklore running through it. And while they are certainly suspenseful, they are not gratuitously violent or exploitative. Sympathetic characters and intelligently constructed plots appeal to our hearts and minds, as well as our wish to be thrilled and excited. These books create miniature worlds that live in our imaginations after the entertainment has finished, and leave us satisfied rather than empty.

The main quibble I have with Stewart is that I wish she would develop her romances more gradually. There tends to be a “boom” moment of falling in love without much apparent reason behind it, based on an acquaintance of mere days or even hours. I found this element required more suspension of disbelief than did some of the improbable and extreme situations.

Still, I enjoyed so much about her books that this was a minor issue for me. Now, for Mary Stewart Reading Week, I need to pick which novel to read next. I’m thinking of Touch Not the Cat (telepathic romance on an English estate), My Brother Michael (“a mysterious car journey to Delphi in the company of a charming but quietly determined Englishman”), or Airs Above the Ground (Vienna and Lipizzaner horses). Any recommendations?

Review copy source: Print books from library

White Magic: Thornyhold and The White Witch

Mary Stewart, Thornyhold (Morrow, 1988)

Elizabeth Goudge, The White Witch (Coward-McCann, 1952)

I was inspired by many recommendations to pick up one of Mary Stewart’s romantic novels at the library this week, and chose Thornyhold, the story of a young woman who unexpectedly inherits her cousin’s house in Wiltshire and finds that said cousin seems to have been the local white witch … or was she? And is Gilly really expected to step into her shoes, or is the magic she’s being offered of another kind?

Thornyhold is pure wish fulfillment: an 18th century house, full of benign magical influences, and complete with amenities including a modern bathroom, a fabulous garden, a handsome and available neighbor, and convenient proximity to Stonehenge? Yes, please! The mild suspense provided by the plot, which mostly involves a nosy cleaning lady who may or may not have occult leanings, seemed only an excuse to spend time in this lovely setting, and if it also sounds attractive to you, you probably will also enjoy Thornyhold as a pleasant, light read.

Coincidentally, just as I was starting this book, Mary Stewart’s death on May 9 prompted an outpouring of appreciation from many quarters. I’ll definitely be looking into more of her writing. The romance in this one was somewhat boring, and I wonder if any of her other novels are more developed in this regard.

The “white magic” theme reminded me of another book I read a few weeks ago, Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch. It has similar warm-hearted, comforting undertones, with lush descriptions of English homes and countryside, while being much more ambitious and wide-ranging in scope: a historical romance set during the English Civil War. The White Witch of the title is Fronica, a half-gypsy herbalist with ties both to the family of the local Puritan squire and to Royalist/Catholic sympathizers. Several different intertwined stories of these individuals, representing many different points of view, combine to give a rich and rewarding picture of a turbulent time in history.

Without knowing much about the era, I thought that Goudge excelled at sympathetically presenting characters on both sides of the conflict, bringing out the human struggles behind the “Puritan” and “Royalist” labels. The glimpses of Gypsy life and lore were fascinating, and seemed less sentimentalized or idealized than is often the case. As in Thornyhold there’s a “black” witch as counterpart to the “white,” and this story thread is also explored with depth and complexity, giving a multi-layered look into the workings of evil and the mysterious powers of good.

As is usual in Goudge’s writing, Christianity is explicitly invoked, which might irritate some non-believers, but which seems to me to be necessary in portraying an age of faith, and is generally sensitively done. Though Goudge is clearly a believer, even her most saintly characters (in this case, the wonderful old Parson Hawthyn) are portrayed as rounded human beings, rather than proselytizing tools to hit readers over the head with; and she also does an outstanding job of getting into the head of a religious fanatic in a way that causes us to pity rather than loathe him. While the story might seem slow to those used to the current trend toward sexy whiz-bang historicals, the varied cast of characters is the strength of The White Witch, and if you’re like me, will live on in your mind long after you put the book down.