The Wolves Chronicles, Part One

Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)
Joan Aiken, Black Hearts in Battersea (1964)
Joan Aiken, Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966)
Joan Aiken, The Whispering Mountain (1968)
Joan Aiken, The Cuckoo Tree (1971)

PicMonkey Wolves1-5I don’t remember what it was that inspired me to do a reread of Joan Aiken’s twelve “Wolves Chronicles” (and a first read of the later volumes, which I never got around to) — probably it was one of Calmgrove‘s wonderfully detailed and informative reviews. At any rate, once I started I realized that twelve books is a large chunk to take in all at once, so I decided to split up the series. Upon a closer look, I noticed that the first five books were published in quick succession, within a single decade from 1962 to 1971, after which there would be a ten-year gap before the next installment. I decided to read these five first, in publication order rather than according to internal chronology (some of the later books fill in gaps in the earlier story).

One of my very first reviews on this blog was of the first volume, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I’ll just add that the 2012 e-book edition I picked up for this re-read includes an enlightening new introduction by Joan’s daughter, Lizza Aiken, as well as the original illustrations by Pat Marriott, which are splendid. Marriott had a longtime partnership with Aiken that unfortunately has been ignored in later editions of the books, and this is the first time I’ve seen her pictures in context. I also love the original cover illustrations, shown above on the first UK editions from Jonathan Cape. I covet these now.

Wolves was a sort of warm-up, with Aiken getting into a style and era in her first published novel. It’s the second volume, Black Hearts in Battersea, which introduces the “Hanoverian” motif that becomes a distinguishing feature of the series. The idea is that the Stuarts have remained on the British throne — the current king is James III — while the Georgian line has been reduced to the status of pretenders and usurpers. They are always hatching up dastardly plots, each more ridiculous than the last, to be foiled by the loyal subjects of the king. In this volume the main character is the worthy young orphan Simon (a supporting cast member from Wolves), who comes to London to attend art school and finds himself in a nest of Hanoverians. Confronted by a dizzying succession of disguises, missing heirs, abductions, thefts and assassinations, he must use his calm good sense to navigate through it all. I find that in this book Aiken’s ability to balance the sinister and the absurd really shines through. Quite chilling scenes of danger and mystery are leavened with large doses of humor, as when the queen’s oversized tapestry proves to be an important life-saving device — several times, no less. Although the whole thing is definitely over the top, the silliness has a ballast of seriousness underneath.

Illustration by Pat Marriott from The Cuckoo Tree

Most important in this regard is Simon’s befriending of the lonely, neglected child Dido Twite, who defies her family to help him. Simon finds a home and a family at the end of the book, but Dido is seemingly lost at sea, a rather melancholy conclusion. Happily, in Nightbirds on Nantucket, we learn that Dido has been saved by a passing whaler. She wants to return home as soon as possible, but is enlisted to first help the captain’s timid daughter, whom he is delivering to an aunt on Nantucket. Complications necessarily ensue, with more Hanoverian plots, imposters, cruel caregivers, and unusually-pigmented marine mammals. The silliness threatens to get a bit out of hand here, but it’s nice to see Dido come into her own and become a stronger and more self-determining character.

This is where most versions of the sequence move on to another book about Dido, but the next one actually published was The Whispering Mountain. Somewhat tangential to the series, without a Hanoverian plot or a Twite in sight, I find that it fits quite nicely here. It introduces two characters who become important in the next book — the Prince of Wales, and (off-stage) Captain Hughes, whose son, Owen Hughes, is unhappily languishing in Wales with his gruff grandfather while the Captain’s whereabouts are unknown. (From the previous book we know that his ship, the Thrush, was lately in Nantucket.) Owen becomes embroiled in a plot to steal a marvelous golden harp that his grandfather has in his museum. Wicked Lord Malyn wants it to add to his collection of golden objects, and will stop at nothing to get it. Meanwhile, under the mountain there are secrets to be found, and a people to be rescued. In this book Aiken gets to show off her verbal dexterity, with the Prince speaking with a broad Scottish accent, Owen’s friends melodious Welsh, the villainous thugs a thieves’ cant of their own, and the exotic Seljuk of Rum a pastiche of Orientalisms. It would be interesting to analyze the book to see how much of it is actually standard English — and how little it really matters. The word-music takes on a life and energy of its own, and carries us along as surely as the tones of the magical harp. This wonderful and lesser-known book should take its rightful place in Aiken’s most popular series.

Moving on to the next volume, The Cuckoo Tree, we re-join Dido, who is trying to help the injured Captain Hughes to deliver an important dispatch to London before the Prince is crowned as King Richard IV. Sidelined by a carriage accident, she ends up in a remote hamlet full of smugglers, witches, and double-dealing Hanoverians. This book contains the most sinister villains so far, two truly evil witches who cannot fail to give you a shiver. But Dido, resourceful and persistent as ever, finds new friends in unexpected places, and endears herself to the reader as well. Though she’s only been the main character in two books so far, it’s here that she becomes the center of the series.

It’s not possible for me to fully convey the atmosphere of these books in my poor summaries, which can only indicate a few of the incidents and themes that Aiken works so playfully into her vivacious stories. Representatives of sober reality they are not, but if you like a literary confection with a nineteenth century flavor, they are great fun. I enjoyed my five-book foray into Wolves territory, and am looking forward to the next installment. And I’m picking up some of Aiken’s adult novels to read in honor of Austen in August — stay tuned!


In Brief: New releases for spring and summer

This holiday weekend seemed an appropriate time to mention some new releases that I haven’t had a chance to review in full, but recommend as summer reading. What are you looking forward to this season?

Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard
This is a follow-up to the bestselling memoir Lunch in Paris, but can definitely be read on its own. In this installment, the transplanted American author and her French husband leave the bustle of their beloved Paris for an atmospheric Provencal town. The trials of new motherhood and of being a foreigner in a proudly insular society provide some drama, but mostly this is merely an excuse to do some armchair traveling to one of the most beautiful places in the world. Each chapter concludes with several appropriate recipes; I haven’t tried them yet but they look doable and delicious.  
Release date: April 7, 2015 by Little, Brown

The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude
A “golden age” murder mystery from the beautifully produced British Library Crime Classics series, which is being published in the US by Poisoned Pen Press. It was highly readable, and made good use of its Sussex chalklands setting, though I found the style somewhat creaky. Recommended for enthusiasts or collectors of the genre, if not a patch on Dorothy Sayers or Josephine Tey in my opinion.  
US reprint release date: May 5, 2015 from Poisoned Pen Press

The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck
The era of “American Romanticism” is a fascinating chapter in literary history. This historical novel, written in the voice of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, the artist Sophia Peabody, brings it to life through one of the often-overlooked but essential women of the age. I enjoyed that aspect, though the overheated prose surrounding Nathaniel and Sophia’s love affair made me want to seek out some of the primary sources the author consulted to find out whether they really did think and talk like that.
Release date: May 5, 2015 from New American Library

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
Rakoff’s memoir made me wonder what might have been … if I had taken the plunge into the New York publishing world after college as she did, only a few years after I graduated. It was fun to have the vicarious experience of life at an old-school literary agent, on the cusp of the technological revolution (they have only one computer for the whole office). On the other hand, I was glad that the experience of an incredibly horrible literary boyfriend was only vicarious.  
Paperback release date: May 12, 2015 from Vintage

Review copy source: ARCs and early finished copies from publishers. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

The Masque of a Murderer: Author interview with Susanna Calkins

In my recent interview with mystery author and historian Sam Thomas, I asked if he had recommendations for any other books set in seventeenth-century England, and he mentioned a series by Susanna Calkins. Almost immediately, the chance came up to host a blog tour stop for the third and latest entry in the series, The Masque of a Murderer, and I was happy to take this opportunity to learn more about the books and their author.

The Masque of a Murderer takes us into the heart of a turbulent time. London is recovering from the devastations of plague and fire. Social norms are being overturned as women take on new roles in the wake of death and destruction. New religious groups, such as the Quakers, are challenging deeply ingrained conventions. Making her way in all of this turmoil is former servant turned printer’s apprentice Lucy Calkins, who hears a deathbed confession that leads her to search for a murderer. As she goes further into danger, Lucy also must try to solve some knotty problems in her personal life, including that of her relationship to Adam, the son of her former employer.

The novel takes a wide range of elements that are fascinating on their own — Quakerism, early printing and bookselling practices, London’s recovery after the Great Fire — and weaves them into a narrative that will keep you guessing. Although plot-wise it can certainly be read on its own, I found that I regretted missing out on the character development (particularly for Lucy and Adam) that must have taken place in the earlier volumes, so unlike me you might want to start with the first book in the series, Murder at Rosamond’s Gate, and its sequel, From the Charred Remains. There, I’m sure you’ll find even more fascinating historical details wrapped up in an engaging mystery.


Author Susanna Calkins describes herself as an educator, historian, and faculty developer by day, writer by night. She says, “I’ve had a morbid curiosity about murder in seventeenth-century England ever since grad school, in those days before I earned my Ph.D. in history. The ephemera from the archives — tantalizing true accounts of the fantastic and the strange — inspired my historical mysteries. Born and raised in Philadelphia, I live outside Chicago now, with my husband and two sons.”

Welcome, Susanna, and thank you for sharing your perspective with us! I’d like to start with the same question I asked Sam Thomas: You are a historian and history teacher, dedicated to seeking out the truth about the past. What inspired you to turn history into fiction?
What do you hope readers will gain from the experience of reading your

I enjoy Sam’s Midwife Mysteries! My interest in writing a mystery set in seventeenth century England came from when I was doing research as a graduate student. I came across a collection of murder ballads—people used to sing, literally, about murder—and I knew I had to turn some of those ballads into a story.  I am always very happy to hear that people learned something about the time period from my books; my intention wasn’t to educate, but rather to entertain, so it’s always a thrill. (And by the way, Sam and I have talked about a cross-over: his midwife would deliver one of my characters!)

This novel starts with a murder that takes place within the Quaker community in London. Today, most Americans’ associations with Quakerism are probably vaguely benign: pacifism, Benjamin Franklin, oatmeal. But as you make very clear, in the seventeenth century this new religious group was a hotbed of controversy and persecution. Can you describe some of the reasons for this?

Ha! That’s funny. When the Quakers first emerged—along with other radical groups like the Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Anabaptists etc—they were challenging the established religious and social order enacted by the Church of England (Anglicans). They likened themselves to Old Testament prophets, and saw it as their godly duty to protest against the King, Parliament, and other authorities who sought to constrain their religious views. So they dressed in sackcloth, shouted from street corners, “quaked in the presence of the Lord,” and “ran naked as a sign” to demonstrate their conscience.

Why did you choose to set a mystery within this community? What intrigues you most about it?

My doctoral dissertation focused on the political activities of Quaker women. As a group they were the most prolific of writers; they published thousands of tracts and other penny pieces, which was quite amazing. I was always intrigued by the way people in this time period would gather around while someone was dying; the Quakers in particular would make sure they recorded someone’s last dying words for posterity; I always wondered what would happen if that dying person said that he or she was murdered, and that the murderer was nearby. That is the premise of this book.

Several of the characters in your story have left lives of wealth and relative luxury to become Quakers, giving up many pleasures and indulgences to follow the strict rules of the sect. Were you following a historical precedent in this? Why do you think people would make such a choice at that time in history?

Many Quakers actually came from the ‘middling sort’ or even the noble class. Indeed, the founders of the Quakers–George Fox, Margaret Fell Fox and William Penn–were all fairly wealthy and used much of their money to fund Quaker causes. Deep religious and spiritual values were much more pervasive and meaningful in early modern England as well; for many people, obeying one’s conscience was far more important than blindly establishing an established institutionalized religion.

Your main character in this series is a former chambermaid who becomes involved in investigating crimes. Is there a relationship between her two roles of servant and detective? Do you believe that one informs the other, or are they antithetical?

As a servant Lucy is able to move in and out of different environments, listening to people, paying attention to things, and she is often able to pass unnoticed. As a printer’s apprentice and bookseller, she has increased access to the outside world, and can move about a little more freely.

Another thread in your series is the rise of the popular press, as Lucy becomes an apprentice in a printer’s shop. You mention that “ephemera from the archives” inspired your fictional writings — what are some examples in this field? Are the tracts and pamphlets that you write about real? Did they prompt some of the events in your fiction?

I spent a lot of time poring over these old tracts, pamphlets, broadsides and ballads when I was a graduate student (still do, actually). Since the paper quality was so cheap, most of these printed pieces have not survived. What remains are usually from the collections of individuals, who may have enjoyed certain types of stories—like stories of murders, “monstrous births,” as well as jokes and ribald tales. They are very helpful to draw upon when I am writing. A few of the tracts I reference are real, but most of the ones I mention in the books are made up by me.

You’re already working on a fourth Lucy Calkins book, Death Along the River Fleet. Can you give us a hint of what is in store next for your heroine? 

In this one, Lucy is making an early morning delivery, walking along the burnt out area of London. As she crosses one of the now-lost rivers of London—the River Fleet—she comes across a woman, clad only in an underdress and covered with blood that is not her own. The woman has no memory of who she is, and so Lucy takes her Dr. Larimer, a physician of her acquaintance. Without going into too many more details, the woman appears to be a noblewoman, and Lucy is asked to serve discreetly as her companion while she recovers. When the body of a murdered man is discovered, suspicion will fall upon this woman, and Lucy will seek to unearth the truth of the matter. . .

Thanks for having me today!

And thank you, Susanna! Your answers made me even more interested to learn more about this time and place, and appreciative of the research that went into your fictional creations.

This is a stop on the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour for The Masque of a Murderer. Please visit the tour page for additional reviews, interviews, giveaways, and more.

Review copy source: ARC from publisher. This book will be released by St. Martin’s Minotaur on April 14, 2015. 


Pieces of Truth: Alias Grace

Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (1996)

Although there were many books I should have been reading and other things I should have been doing, once I started Alias Grace they all went by the wayside; I could not put it down. The subject matter is sensational in itself: the real-life case of 16-year-old housemaid Grace Marks, accused in 1843 of collaborating with her lover to murder her employer and his housekeeper (who also happened to be his lover). Atwood goes beyond the exploitative and voyeuristic thrills of such a story to give us a convincing, yet tantalizingly ambiguous portrait of a notorious woman that shakes up our assumptions about gender, class, sexuality, and morality.

The main thread of the story takes place several years into Grace’s incarceration — her death sentence as an accessory to murder was
commuted to a life sentence, which many sympathizers tried to overturn further. A young doctor with an interest in new scientific ideas about the mind is interviewing Grace, trying to bring unconscious material to light that might exonerate her. As she tells her story (with what degree of veracity is never entirely certain), his own life begins to unravel in a disturbing way.

In this murder mystery turned inside out, the question of “whodunit” becomes more than an effort to point the finger at a guilty party and feel cleansed thereby of our own misdeeds. Who does our deeds, really? What is the nature of the human mind and soul? What is happening in the shadows of our consciousness, where we scarcely dare to venture? Through an assemblage of various voices, pieced together like one of the quilts that Grace excels at creating, a picture starts to emerge, but it does not give us a fixed and definitive “answer.” Not unlike one of those quilt designs that can be seen in multiple ways — boxes or windows? — it shifts before our sight, as multi-layered and difficult to grasp as human awareness itself.

Thanks to Girl with Her Head in a Book for inviting me to join in a readalong of this terrific book. If you decide to pick it up as well, just be sure to set aside a couple of days — once you fall under the spell of Atwood’s lucid and compelling storytelling, you’re going to find it hard to attend to anything else for a while.


The Witch Hunter’s Tale: Author interview with Sam Thomas

Today, I’m pleased to welcome author Sam Thomas to talk about his latest “Midwife Mystery,” The Witch Hunter’s Tale, published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in January, 2015. This third installment in Sam’s series about a mystery-solving midwife in seventeenth century York, England, follows The Midwife’s Tale and The Harlot’s Tale but can also be read on its own.

In this thrilling novel, Sam takes us deep into the dark streets of the ancient city, unfolding a tale of the terrible witch hunts that flared into fanaticism during an unstable era in history. By centering on a midwife as his main character, Sam also illuminates the frequently overlooked stories of the brave and compassionate women who struggled to bring healing into the lives of others during this turbulent time, as well as those who would use their position in a more unscrupulous way. With its combination of deep human interest and dynamic real-life events, The Witch Hunter’s Tale is a great read for lovers of historical mysteries, and especially for those who, like me, have a special interest in the history and literary associations of Yorkshire.

Sam Thomas is a former professor of history at the University of Alabama and currently teaches secondary school students at the University School near Cleveland, Ohio. He has received research grants from the National Endowment for the
Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the British Academy, and has
published articles on topics ranging from early modern Britain to
colonial Africa. Sam kindly answered some of my questions about the history behind the mysteries, and I hope you’ll find his perspective as fascinating as I do.

You are a historian and history teacher, dedicated to seeking out the truth about the past. What inspired you to turn history into fiction? What do you hope readers will gain from the experience of reading your books?

The jump into fiction came at the same time I quite college teaching to move to an independent high school. (Long story there!) The problem was that as a historian I’d become fascinated by the history of midwives and could not bear the thought of abandoning them entirely. I knew that no high school would give me a year off to write a history of midwifery, so I thought a novel might take its place. And it seems to have!

My goal when I write fiction is more or less unchanged from my non-fiction days. I want to write about the past in a way that is true and engages the reader’s heart and mind. The past is full of amazing stories, so there is no reason at all for it to be dry.

What do you find most intriguing about your the era and place of your series — northern England in the time of the battles between Royalists and Puritans?

I was originally drawn to this period because of its religious diversity. (My own family is a mix of Quaker, Jewish, and Catholic. Paging Dr. Freud.) You had the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers, all running about at the same time. I wanted to know how these groups related to each other: when did they fight, when did they get along, and why?

Then you throw in the Civil War, the trial and execution of the King on charges of treason…really, what more could you want?

Your central mystery-solving midwife character is based on a real person, Bridget Hodgson. You go into her fascinating historical record in detail on your website, but can you briefly describe who she was and how you found her?

The ‘historical’ Bridget Hodgson was a midwife in York during and after the English Civil War. I stumbled across her will entirely by accident, and immediately fell in love. I had this image of midwives as elderly crones of dubious reputation with their neighbors, but there she was, wealthy, well-born, and proud of her work as a midwife, and the more I learned, the more I loved.

She was from a gentry family, the Baskervilles (she had a coat of arms and perhaps a hound), married the son of the Lord Mayor of York, and – this is the great part – named all her god-daughters after herself.

It is one thing to give your own daughter your name (she did this too), but to name other people’s daughters after you? That takes some confidence.

Why did you choose to make a midwife the focus of a series of mystery novels?

It actually was the other way around. I knew I wanted to write about midwives, and mysteries seemed the way to go.

First, it made it easier to find a plot. You start with one dead body, and you end with another one. Easy as pie!

Second, it made sense. Midwives were a part of the criminal justice system at the time, investigating crimes ranging from infanticide and rape to witchcraft. And if a female prisoner were sentenced to death and claimed to be pregnant, the midwife was the one who checked out her story.

Literally, midwives decided who lived and died!

It seems that there is a fair amount of mystery about midwives themselves — historians don’t really know much about their lives and work in the pre-modern era. What are some of the questions that are being researched?

Man, great question. I think the one key question focuses on the relationship between midwives and mothers. So little is known about this, but it obviously was key to many women’s lives. How did mothers pick midwives and what criteria did they use? What made a midwife good at her job?

The other – even bigger – question was how men took over childbirth. The curious thing about this is that it is unlikely that the male midwives were forced on unwilling mothers. Rather, mothers sought out male practitioners. The question we can’t answer is why? What happened in English society that made this change possible?

In this particular book, the terrible phenomenon of witch hunting, which was at its height at the time, is central to the plot. What do think fueled this hysteria? How do you hope your fictional treatment can help us understand it?

Between 1400 and 1800, approximately five hundred English women were executed as witches. Of these, nearly three hundred were killed in a single decade, the 1640s. So there is no question that the witch panics were a product of a very specific time and place.

The best book on this is Malcom Gaskill’s Witchfinders. I can’t do his thesis justice here, but in short he argues that the chaos of the civil war drove people to violence. Misfortune was a sign of God’s anger, and hunting witches was a way to please Him.

Add to this the collapse of government authority, which ordinarily kept accusations from getting out of hand, and the conditions were just right for this sort of thing.

I think the key idea is that witch hunters thought they were doing God’s work, and often were terrified of the women they put on trial. Obviously I’m not defending them, but it is important to understand the past.

If a reader is so lucky as to have a chance to visit the city of York, what sites do you recommend for getting a sense of the past?

The great thing about York is that it’s small and compact. See the cathedral, and pay for the extras. (You have to pay to get into the Chapter House, walk on the roof, and go down into the crypt, but do it!)

Walk the city wall – it’s amazing – and then get lost. There are old churches everywhere, and each one is a marvel.

And, do you have recommendations for further reading about your novel’s time, place, and subjects, either fiction or nonfiction (not too technical for us non-historians)?

Witchfinders is good, I think, and available in paperback. For fiction, I’d recommend Susanna Calkins’s Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, the first in her series. She’s also a historian, we have the same publisher, and we each have two sons of the same age. Had we not met, I’d think we might be the same person. Except I’m taller.

If you want to go a bit earlier, there’s C.J. Sansom’s series about Matthew Shardlake. One of these (Sovereign?) takes place in York, at least in part. They are quite good!

Thank you, Sam! Your decision to write a “midwife mystery” now makes perfect sense, and I for one am very glad you did. I look forward to reading more about Bridget and her adventures.

This is a stop on the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour for The Witch Hunter’s Tale. Please visit the tour page for more stops with reviews, interviews, and other great content.

New Release Review: An Appetite for Violets

Martine Bailey, An Appetite for Violets (2015)

Start with an intriguing opening: a mouldering, uneaten feast, seen through the eyes of a hapless young man in search of his runaway sister. Add some piquant ingredients: the voices of servants, with their own lives and thoughts under the genteel surface imposed by their aristocratic employers. Take both servants and masters on a journey from northern England to Tuscany, mixing well along the way. Result: a thoroughly entertaining historical mystery, with a culinary slant.

In this tale inspired by and incorporating a collection of antique recipes, it’s natural enough that the main narrative belongs to an energetic young cook, Biddy Leigh. Biddy’s distinctive first-person voice provides much of the charm of the novel, and her enthusiasm for gastronomic adventure is contagious. When torn from her familiar surroundings by the seeming whim of her mistress, taken on an increasingly puzzling journey through France and over the Alps to Italy, she loses no opportunity to learn and benefit from her expanded horizons, and sharing her experiences is a treat for us as well. But when the game becomes deadly serious, can she cook her way out of this turn of events?

Although the components of this novel were splendid, the last stages of their assembly left something to be desired. Biddy’s mistress asks her to take part in a deception that requires her to act and talk in a way that is not truly believable for her character, and that also caused her to lose much of her distinctive “flavor.” An overly hasty love story and an unnecessarily melodramatic twist also marred the final chapters. Like cooks, novelists must beware of too many ingredients, too eagerly flung together. However, An Appetite for Violets is in the main a delicious concoction, full of historical details that don’t bog down the story but provide many delightful moments to savor.

Linked in Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads


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.



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

Out of the Gutter: Smith

Leon Garfield, Smith: The Story of a Pickpocket (1967)

But there was great determination in him. Each fresh disaster he endured seemed to strengthen his bond with the document…and whatever it might contain. In a way, it seemed to be payment in advance.

Leon Garfield historical

“Dickensian” is a word freely tossed about in describing a certain strain of literature, but Smith is one of the rare books that actually deserves it. (It’s no accident that another of the author’s works is a completion of The Mystery of Edwin Drood). A singularly stylish adventure story for young readers, set in the raucous milieu of eighteenth century London, it seems less an imitation of the master than a natural extension of his work, and that of earlier comic novelists like Fielding and Smollett.

Twelve-year-old Smith is an accomplished pickpocket, but he gets more than he bargained for when he takes some papers from an old country gentleman just moments before he’s murdered by two sinister men in brown. Smith wants to know what is in the dangerous documents that must be so supremely valuable…but he can’t read! And so he sets out on a determined quest for knowledge, which takes him to places beyond his dreams (or nightmares): a fine gentleman’s house, where he is memorably washed for the first time perhaps since birth; Newgate prison, from which he finds a most unusual mode of escape; Finchley Common, where he takes part in an exciting chase worthy of his most revered highwaymen heroes.

Smith‘s pace never slackens for a moment, as the reader becomes as desperate as Smith himself to know what is in those dratted documents, but Garfield keeps us guessing till the very end. He writes as if he were discovering the story rather than creating it, and it’s this exuberant, conversational style that redeems the absurdly improbable plot, and brings a true comic sensibility to what otherwise might have been a grim and somber tale. Here’s a sample, from Smith’s early attempts to find someone who will teach him to read:

Very educated gentlemen, the debtors. A man needs to be educated to get into debt. Scholars all. The first Smith tried was a tall, fine-looking gentleman who, though still in leg-irons, walked like he owned the jail — as well he might, for his debts could have bought it entire.

He smiled; he was never at a loss for a smile. . . which was, perhaps, why he was there; when a man can’t pay what he owes, a smile is a deal worse than nothing!

“Learn us to read, mister!” said Smith, humbly.

The fine debtor stopped, looked — and sighed.

“Not in ten thousand years, my boy!” and, before Smith could ask him why, he told him.

“Be happy that you can’t! For what will you get by it? You’ll read and fret over disasters that might never touch you. You’ll read hurtful letters that might have passed you by. You’ll read warrants and summonses where you might have pleaded ignorance. You’ll read of bills overdue and creditors’ anger — where you might have ignored it all for another month! Don’t learn to read, Smith! Oh! I implore you!”

Then the gentleman drifted, smiling, away, with his back straight, his head held high — and his ankles jingling.

There are other rollicking historical novels for young people out there; I already know and love those by Joan Aiken, Philip Pullman, and Lloyd Alexander, to name a few. Garfield’s distinctive narrative voice was new to me, though, and I found it charming and intriguing. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of this author’s work; he deserves a second look.

A Folio Society edition is also available

Review copy source: Print book from library
1987 Phoenix Award Winner
Classics Club List #5


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.