Favourites on a Friday: Victoria Holt

Victoria Holt

Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert was a woman of many talents, and many names. As Jean Plaidy, she produced several volumes of fascinatingly detailed historical fiction. As Philippa Carr, she penned a multi-generational family saga spanning from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. As Victoria Holt, she wrote thirty-two gripping gothic romances.

In a writing career spanning fifty-two years, Hibbert wrote over 200 books, selling over 100 million copies in 20 languages. Enviably prolific, she reportedly wrote for five hours a day, seven days a week, often producing 5000 words by lunchtime.

I adore Eleanor Hibbert and have a large cabinet devoted solely to her Plaidy and Holt novels, which I have been painstakingly collecting from charity shops and Ebay for years. As much as I admire the Plaidy books, it is Holt who has stolen my heart.

220px-Eleanor_Hibbert1

I have already demonstrated my penchant for gothic-flavoured fiction on this blog: I adore the novels of Kate Morton, and Eve Chase’s Black Rabbit Hall, which is very much cut from the same cloth, is my favourite read of the year so far. But Holt is the master of the genre that blends Rebecca with Jane Eyre, inhabits eerie country mansions and sweeping (and often Cornish) coastlines, and is populated by plucky heroines and brooding heroes.

“Never regret. If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.”

– Victoria Holt

The first Holt novel, Mistress of Mellyn, was published in 1960. Its resemblance to Rebecca was so marked that rumours soon began to swirl that ‘Victoria Holt’ was really a pseudonym for Daphne du Maurier. It would be several years before Holt was identified as Hibbert/Plaidy.

It would be a mistake to assume that the Holt novels are merely Mills and Boon (or Harlequin)-style rehashes of meatier works. Yes, they borrow from Du Maurier and Bronte. But they are glorious entertainments in their own right.

There is a formula at work so I wouldn’t recommend reading more than one or two Holts off the belt: things can get a bit samey. But they are my go-to when I am in a reading slump and am looking for a page turner to bring back my reading mojo.

the shivering sands

I haven’t worked my way through my Holt collection yet: I am using them sparingly! My favourite to date, though, is The Shivering Sands (1969), which has all the classic Holt ingredients. Our heroine is Caroline Verlaine, recently widowed following the death of her concert pianist husband. When we first meet her, she is travelling to Lovat Stacy, a mansion on the Kent Coast, searching for clues as to the whereabouts of her missing archaeologist sister, Roma (who I always imagine as a kind of pre-twentieth century River Song for some reason …).

In typical Holt fashion, Caroline finds herself embroiled in a love triangle. On the one hand, there is the Rochester-type figure of Napier Stacy, a bit of a devil who may or may not have shot a man on purpose (he remains mysteriously tight-lipped about the whole incident. Understandably so, I suppose). On the other hand, we have the St. John Rivers-esque Godfrey. Caroline has to choose between two different kinds of love, and two contrasting futures. If she can avoid the demon quicksand, that is:

They had both been at hand when I needed them ….; in their different ways they loved me. Godfrey tenderly, kindly, gently and perhaps dispassionately; perhaps he had chosen me because I would make a suitable wife. And Napier, fiercely, possessively, desperately. (pp. 319-320)

Love triangles. Creepy houses. Even creepier elderly ladies who still wear their hair in bunches. Sinister little children. Dramatic coastlines. Demon quicksand! Call me weak, but I can’t resist all that.

Holt’s novels are, purely and simply, consummate entertainment. The majority of her works are out of print (grrr!) but can be tracked down easily enough (perhaps wait until I’ve completed my collection first. We don’t want things to get unpleasantly competitive and ugly now, do we?). Fortunately, many of her finest books are available, including The Shivering Sands. Already a fan? I would love to hear from you and find out your favourite Victoria!

Recently I’ve Read … Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase

Black Rabbit Hall Cover Image

I find it much easier to pinpoint exactly why I didn’t enjoy a book than to explain what compelled me to stay up until daft o’ clock to finish it. Loving a book seems a lot more abstract and tricky to describe than disliking one. Yet I must have a go because Black Rabbit Hall is my favourite read of the year so far.

I am very dubious of those ‘Perfect for fans of …’declarations on book covers. Usually the very opposite is true: die hard fans like to stick to the original and accept no imitations, thank you very much.

This case proved to be an exception for me, though. I have previously declared my love for Kate Morton’s novels and when I saw Black Rabbit Hall described as ‘perfect for fans of Kate Morton’, there was a bit of an involuntary lip curl. But there was also a flicker of hope: ‘what if?’ And, for once, hope did not turn to disappointment. This novel and I were perfect for each other. Hurrah.

But why? Well, firstly, I do like my old dual time frames and, here, Eve Chase offers two gripping and intertwining narratives. The third-person modern day narrative centres around Lorna, who is searching for the perfect wedding venue whilst grieving the recent loss of her mother. Vague recollections of childhood visits with her mother draw Lorna to Pencraw Hall in Cornwall, known locally as Black Rabbit Hall. Things get ‘gothicky’ straight away when a local farmer tries to warn Lorna and her fiance Jon away from the house with some friendly advice and a thick slice of foreboding. Lorna ploughs on regardless, though, and encounters an even gothickier set-up on arrival at the Hall. She meets Mrs Alton, the frosty and forbidding owner and her kept-down assistant, Dill. Mrs Alton is desperate to save the house from financial ruin by offering it as a wedding venue, despite its dilapidated state. Keen to secure her first customer, Mrs Alton invites Lorna to stay and, against the wishes of her increasingly uneasy fiance, she agrees. Lorna’s growing obsession with the house drives a wedge between her and Jon to the point where there might never be a wedding at all. What isn’t she telling him? Why is she so drawn to Black Rabbit Hall?

In our breaks between visits to modern day Black Rabbit Hall, we are whisked back to the late 1960s where we are in the rather delightful company of Amber Alton, our fifteen year-old narrator. Amber is growing up and growing apart from her twin brother, Toby. The twins –  along with their younger siblings Kitty and Barney, their beautiful American mother, Nancy and their father Hugh –  spend their holidays at Black Rabbit Hall, their family’s ‘safe, happy place’.

But the Hall doesn’t seem so safe after a tragedy rocks the Altons and, soon afterwards, Caroline Shawcross and her son Lucien arrive to further compromise the family’s insular existence. Amber’s coming of age is infused with tension and danger as Toby becomes increasingly wild and rage-driven, convinced that another disaster will befall the family on the last day of the summer holidays.

Like all things worth loving, Black Rabbit Hall isn’t perfect. It is highly predictable in places and the gothic chimes of doom are overdone at times. There are some rather far-fetched elements. Mrs Alton and Dill, for instance, are the sort of people who only seem to exist in gothic-tinged novels. Where else do you hear walking canes ominously tapping down corridors in the dead of night? Or maybe that’s just me. Perhaps if I had stayed overnight in a creaky country mansion, I would have a different take on things.

These little wrinkles are all forgivable, though. The majority of the characters seem incredibly real, especially the Alton children. I cared very deeply about their fates and kept hoping that the terrible sense of foreboding that permeates this strand of the narrative would prove to be a false alarm.

The whole novel is highly atmospheric and completely gripping. Black Rabbit Hall itself is almost a character in the book and is very vividly described. The ending is satisfying and the epilogue hauntingly beautiful.

Indeed, whilst some of the writing is predictable and a tad OTT, there are some deeply insightful passages too, and these mark Eve Chase as a real talent: a gifted writer as well as a consummate storyteller. The loss of mothers is a key theme in the novel. This is something else that drew me to the book. I lost my own mother in May and so this novel was particularly timely for me. There is nothing more reassuring than coping with such a loss, feeling that you’re going a bit mad and then reading something that indicates you are not alone and hints that you are probably perfectly normal after all. Such is the power of books. This was exactly my experience here. The descriptions of Lorna’s grief were incredibly well-observed and highly relatable, lifting the novel from a ripping yarn into something more evocative and powerful.

Black Rabbit Hall Quote

For me, this book has it all: a gripping plot, a dramatic location, characters who live and breathe on the page, and beautiful, haunting prose. I wish all novels were like this but, then, I wouldn’t get much else done!

Favourites on a Friday: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

The House of the Spirits

Of all the novels I’ve ever read – and there’s been a fair few – The House of the Spirits has cast the most potent spell on me. I read it back in 2006 and still think of it regularly.

First published in 1982 as La casa de los espiritus, this is the debut novel of the Chilean author Isabel Allende. The book has an autobiographical element. Allende’s second cousin was Salvador Allende, the President of Chile from 1970 until his deposition by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. The novel borrows from these events: the generation-spanning saga of the Trueba family is at first overshadowed by the threat of a political revolution, then played out in front of it. However, this aspect of the novel has a dreamlike, hazy and allegorical tone. The country in which these events unfold is never named and we encounter characters known only to us as the Poet and the President.

For me, though, this is not a novel about political upheaval and revolution; it is about how we can survive such things. The opening lines are pretty revealing, I think:

Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy. She was already in the habit of writing down important matters, and afterward, when she was mute, she also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own (p. 11)

As the above snippet suggests, this tale of three women – Clara, Bianca and Alba, who narrates those lines – is a tale about storytelling itself, of the importance of writing and the imagination. The power of the imagination to flourish under oppression and withstand adversity is illustrated during Alba’s incarceration towards the end of the book:

… she was able to bury herself so deeply in her story that she stopped eating, scratching herself, smelling herself, and complaining, and overcame all her varied agonies (p. 470)

Yet it is not imaginative writing – writing as escapism – that is eventually lauded. Those opening lines hint at the potential of writing to forge connections between generations. This theme is reinforced later on when the function of writing to preserve the past and to ‘bear witness’ is highlighted:

Had it not been for the letters Clara and Bianca exchanged, that entire period would have remained submerged in a jumble of faded, timeworn memories. Their abundant correspondence salvaged events from the mists of improbable facts.

Life, Allende stresses, is fleeting and transient; writing is the only means of fixing and preserving it. Moreover, writing helps to create links, not only between past and present but, in this novel dominated by the feminine, between women, some of whom have never met.

Additionally, when events unfold in the present, they appear to be random, chaotic, unordered. Yet, Alba’s access to written accounts helps her to order events and understand them, discovering links and establishing a sense of fate and destiny. Writing thus endows the past with structure and meaning, making sense of apparently random events:

I write, [Clara] wrote, that memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events …. That’s why my Grandmother Clara wrote in her notebooks, in order to see things in their true dimension and to defy her own poor memory

A beautiful book about writing, memory, imagination, the strength of the human spirit and the connection between generations of women.

Recently I’ve Read … The Dandelion Years by Erica James

dandelion-years

Erica James is an author whose name I’ve long been familiar with but whose books I’d never quite got round to reading. Beguiled by the bright, summery cover, I decided to begin with James’s 19th – and latest – novel, The Dandelion Years.

I do like a novel with a good dual time frame and this one delivers on that front. Our present day heroine is Saskia, a book-restorer in her early 30s. Saskia resides at the idyllic Ashcombe cottage with her father, Ralph, and her two grandfathers, Oliver and Harvey. This unusual living arrangement came about under tragic circumstances when Saskia’s mother and two grandmothers were killed in a car accident on her tenth birthday.

This tragedy has, quite understandably, made Saskia somewhat resistant to change. She has also managed to convince herself that loving someone isn’t always worth the pain of losing them. She thus has a habit of shying away from romance and finds it difficult to trust.

Whilst Saskia’s father and grandfathers worry that she has become stuck in a rut, she discovers a secret notebook hidden inside an old family Bible. The notebook contains a story, which the initially anonymous author purports to be true, entitled ‘The Dandelion Years’. Saskia becomes entranced by the author’s account of a wartime love affair conducted between two young people embroiled in top secret work at Bletchley Park.

As the novel unfolds, Saskia identifies the notebook’s author and confides in Matthew, the young man who was like a son to him. Their shared interest in the story of The Dandelion Years brings Saskia and Matthew closer together. But can Saskia escape the shadow of her tragic past  and allow herself a chance at happiness? Does the notebook have any words of wisdom for Saskia and Matthew to learn from?

I turned to The Dandelion Years for some easy summer reading and that is exactly what it provided. It took me a little while to get into this one, largely because Saskia and her family seemed rather twee to my tastes. I soon fell under their spell, though. Indeed, I ended up finding the modern day story just as compelling as the Second World War narrative. Usually with dual-narratives, one is slightly stronger than the other but I liked both equally here and didn’t heave a sigh when the author switched between them.

That said, Saskia’s story did seem to drag on for a little while at the end. I think it’s also worth pointing out that, although two of the main characters work at Bletchley Park, the focus is solely on the romance: there is not very much detail about their wartime work here. I would have liked a little more on this, but James’s descriptions of dreadful landladies with black market dealings and plucky land girls were sufficient to lend period flavour.

For me, there was something a little flat about The Dandelion Years, and I doubt it will prove to be all that memorable. Despite this, it is a diverting read with some appealing characters and enough packed into both narratives to keep you turning the pages. I would, however, like to issue a Weepie Alert here: there are one or two passages that made the novel tricky to read on public transport because I had ‘such terrible hay fever today, dammit!’

 

Favourites on a Friday: Strangers by Taichi Yamada

Strangers

If you’re ever in the mood for satisfying, thought-provoking literary fiction but don’t fancy wading through something that could double as a doorstop, look no further: Strangers  is brief and brilliant.

The English translation of this Japanese novel fills just 208 pages but this slim volume makes a huge impact.

Strangers delivers a Christmas Carol-esque lesson that stresses the importance of forging connections with others in an increasingly isolating world. And just like Dickens’ festive favourite, Strangers uses ghosts to get the message across.

At the centre of the novel is Harada, an emotionally detached man who perhaps prizes his independence too highly. One day, he encounters a couple who bear a striking resemblance to his deceased parents. He forges a bond with this couple, paying them regular visits. As the friendship develops, Harada’s health rapidly deteriorates. It is then that he realises that the couple are in fact ghosts who are draining his strength. Woven in with all of this is Harada’s relationship with Kei, who may not be all she seems.

Strangers functions incredibly well as a gripping, and genuinely chilling, ghost story. It also meditates rather beautifully on the bond between parents and children. Taichi Yamada contrasts the unconditional love between parents and children with the often thornier nature of romantic love. The novel considers the risks we take when we fall in love, the anxiety of revealing our imperfections to others, and the temptation to spare ourselves from potential rejection by retreating from the world.

Ultimately, Strangers warns against emotional withdrawal, urging us to remain open to forging connections with others. This is what makes us vulnerable, yes; it is also what makes us human. The novel invites us always to ask: ‘what could this stranger become?’ This message is at least as timely now as it was in 1987 when the novel was first published, perhaps even more so.