Favourites on a Friday: Mary Stewart

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With summer fading into autumn and the nights gradually drawing in, many readers will be on the lookout for some enchanting escapism to get them through the drizzly days and chilly nights. I would strongly encourage these readers to grab hold of their favourite, cosiest blanket, pour themselves a nice hot cup of tea and pick up a Mary Stewart.

A small sample of my much-loved Mary Stewart collection
A small sample of my much-loved Mary Stewart collection

Mary Stewart is known for her romantic suspense novels, which were best-sellers when first published. Beginning with Madam, Will You Talk in 1955, these books typically feature compelling mysteries with a pinch of romance for good measure.

There is something a bit special about Stewart’s novels; they wield a certain magic. Often set in foreign, occasionally exotic, lands – Damascus, the Greek islands, Spain, France, Austria – these stories transport their readers into another world. This is escapist fiction at its best.

And better yet, Stewart’s heroines are often delightfully intelligent, level-headed and quick with the witty one-liner. Her very first protagonist, Charity from Madam, Will You Talk, is a bona fide Stewart heroine: glamorous, cool under pressure and with serious racing driving skills.

Start with any Mary Stewart novel and you won’t go far wrong but I would, if I may, steer you in the direction of one of the fan favourites first: My Brother Michael, Nine Coaches Waiting, or The Moonspinners (later turned into a Disney film starring Hayley Mills and well worth  a watch) perhaps.

Stewart is also well-known for a series of Arthurian novels. This sequence focuses on the wizard, Merlin, and strips back the usual fantasy elements so that they read more like historical novels. This is the Merlin of the original Welsh legend, rather than the version popularized by the French chivalric tradition. If you’re interested in Stewart’s take on Merlin and Arthur, start with The Crystal Cave (1970).

Mary Stewart, who died in May 2014, was born in Sunderland, just down the road from me. I thus take a particular pride in the talents of this local author. Her beautifully written, captivating novels offer peerless entertainment and escapism.

Already a fan of Mary Stewart? Which of her novels would you recommend to new readers? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

Fantasy Fiction Week: Favourites on a Friday: The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

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In Spring this year, I finally got all caught up with A Song of Ice and Fire and joined the lengthy and impatient queue for The Winds of Winter. Although I, like many others it would seem, had grown increasingly dissatisfied with the series since the lacklustre A Feast for Crows, leaving Westeros behind for the time being left something of a void in my reading life. Searching for something equally immersive to take its place, I stumbled upon Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy.

In many ways, this trilogy was the logical next step after A Song of Ice and Fire. The latter is a textbook example of the grimdark approach to fantasy writing, which simultaneously borrows from and inverts the Tolkien tradition. In this respect, Abercrombie follows in Martin’s grimdark footsteps, with morally grey characters and anti-heroes in abundance.

Indeed, it is the characters that make this trilogy a standout in my opinion. It is hard to pick a favourite but, if pressed, I would probably plump for Sand dan Glokta. Glokta was once a dashing young hero and a renowned swordsman. Something of a hero, he was captured and tortured during an earlier conflict. Broken, crippled and bitter, he is now a torturer for the Inquisition and the sort of appealingly cynical character that can give Tyrion Lannister a run for his money.

Glokta’s closest rival for my affections is Logen Ninefingers, a deeply feared Northern warrior who is desperate to escape his violent past and his brutal alter-ego, ‘The Bloody Nine’. I am also inordinately fond of Jezal dan Luthar, a promising swordsman who starts off as insufferably selfish, shallow and vain and becomes … ah, well. That would be telling.

Joyously, there are some intriguing female characters here, too: the fabulously flawed Ardee West and the ferocious Ferro Maljinn. Looming large over all the aforementioned, however, is Bayaz, the First of the Magi. Bayaz has been in self-imposed exile for generations but has recently returned. What are his motives and is he a Gandalf or a Sauron? In this world, it isn’t easy to tell, and it isn’t impossible for one character to be both.

Abercrombie’s characterisation may take top billing but the sheer quality of his writing comes a very close second. Pithy, witty, sharp and wise – I highlighted something every few pages.

The plot focuses on the conflicts of several different continents.  It would be a crime to give too much away here, but I did feel that the trilogy fell down a little plot-wise. Whilst I am fully aware that this sense of disappointment was the Whole Point, the finale does raise the question of the extent to which a fantasy novel can flout the conventions of the genre and still deliver. Which is interesting enough in itself, really.

Although I found the plot slightly shaky at times, The First Law Trilogy makes it onto my favourites shelf on the strength of its characters and on the quality of Abercrombie’s prose.

There are three standalone novels also set in the same world: Best Served ColdThe Heroes, and Red Country. All three are pretty high up on my (ridiculously long) TBR.

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.

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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.

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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!

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.

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.

Favourites on a Friday: Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman

Lydia Cassatt Front Cover

I read Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper in 2008 and it has stayed with me ever since. I am actually tempted to re-read this at some point and, for me, that is a statement and a half. I am in my early 30s now and the only novel I have ever read twice is Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Which isn’t even a particular favourite of mine. I read it when I was 16 then revisited it a couple of years ago during one of my many periods of obsession with the Kate Bush song of the same name.

Well, anyway. I digress. The point is that I hardly ever re-read novels, for reasons I may blog about in the future if I can ever figure them out, but I am sorely tempted with Lydia Cassatt.

The novel is inspired by the work of Mary Cassatt, an American-born artist who moved to France, formed an attachment to Degas and became identified with the Impressionist movement. Harriet Scott Chessman takes as her inspiration five paintings Mary created of her elder sister, Lydia, who was afflicted by Bright’s Disease.

Mary Cassatt: Lydia Reading on a Divan (1880-1)
Mary Cassatt: Lydia Reading on a Divan (1880-1)

Lydia, who predeceased Mary by 44 years, is the narrator of this short novel, an approach that enables Chessman to touch upon an array of universal themes.

Seen through Lydia’s eyes, Mary’s world is rendered in details as impressionistic as her paintings. Readers are given a sense of Mary as a person and a painter, of her family life, her decision to choose career over marriage, and of her intriguing relationship with Degas.

Because Lydia is the narrator, Mary becomes both personally and professional defined by this sibling relationship. The connection between painter and subject is explored in some detail and Chessman seems to conclude that the latter has almost equal involvement in the creative process as the former. In doing so, she captures Lydia’s frustration at being ‘interpreted’ by a beholder who can only ever capture Lydia as they see her, not as she sees herself:

But you’re wrong. I’m not such a timid soul. Whatever I look at, I look at wholeheartedly and with as clear an eye as even you can turn on the world. (Chessman, p. 73)

Indeed, as portrayed by Chessman, Lydia is an intelligent, spirited woman, haunted by memories of the American Civil War and of past family tragedies. She is as creative as Mary and Degas, with a gift for embroidery and an ability to respond emotively and articulately to the world around her and to the work her sister creates. Tragically, Lydia is constrained by her illness and, whilst Mary’s unmarried status is seen as a sacrifice or exchange for her art, Lydia is cast into the role of unwordly, overlooked virgin. A role belied by her passionate nature.

An extraordinarily gifted writer, Chessman is at her strongest when exploring the nature of illness and the way in which it defines the sufferer and their relationships. The passages describing Lydia’s suffering and the most vividly realised and powerful. Lydia accepts her fate but Mary struggles to face the inevitable. It is Lydia who recognises that her sister has been able to gift her some form of immortality:

You will remember me because you caught my soul in paint. (Chessman, p. 191)

Lydia finds solace in her sister’s works, something that is apparent in this beautiful passage in which she confronts the imminence of death:

Terrible, to imagine a world continuing beyond my own dissolving; yet what if I am a presence for May (Lydia’s nickname for Mary), and for others too, leaving a trace, like the swath of white light on the top of this embroidery frame? Maybe I should not be so afraid of vanishing, after all. (Chessman, p. 192)

As well researched as this novel undoubtedly is, for me it functions not as a piece of biographical or historical fiction. Instead, I see it as a meditation upon illness, mortality and the power of art to partly negate the transient nature of existence. It is an incredible piece of writing. In a glorious instance of serendipity, I stumbled across the novel in a charity shop. It doesn’t seem too easy (or too cheap) to track down but, if anything in this post has piqued your interest, I urge you to don your deerstalker and have a go!

 

Favourites on a Friday: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to attended a conference at which Kate Mosse, the bestselling author and founder of the  Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (previously the Orange Prize), was one of the keynote speakers. During her talk, Mosse discussed the ‘distinction’ between literary and popular fiction. The inverted commas there represent Mosse’s, and her audience’s, acknowledgment that this distinction is possibly more perceived than actual. These perceptions are that literary fiction focuses on language and ideas, whilst popular fiction is concerned with plot and character. Myriad debates blow up right at this point. Are the two mutually exclusive? Is one perceived to be worthier and/or cleverer than the other? Is one considered to be something of a poor relation, created by those less skilled and/or after a fast buck? I don’t plan to address these questions because they are very complex and I will get myself into a right old tangle, inciting fury and rage.

No. What I really want to do here is to reveal a little bit more of my reading identity by saying that most of my favourite novels occupy the border territory between literary and popular fiction. Language and ideas are all very interesting and everything, but I am not that well-endowed in the attention span department so … hang on what was I … oh yeah. I’m not that well-endowed in the attention span department so I really need more of an impetus  to keep on turning the pages. Consequently, I like a nice, gripping plot and some interesting characters. But – and I hope you don’t think me an insufferably pompous arse here – I don’t like things to be too unchallenging because I get bored. So the recipe for the  perfect, Caroline-friendly novel has plot and character as the main ingredients, with a side salad of ideas and a dash of language. A tiny bit of something to make my brain spark a little, but not a load of beautiful written nothings that offer no thrills whatsoever. I am the literary Goldilocks.

I reckon that Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth falls into this category. It is primarily a blockbusting thriller, but also reflects upon the deeper themes of remembrance and the invisible links between generations. However, one of my favourite occupiers of this border territory is a novel by another Kate – Kate Atkinson.

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 Case Histories is the first in a series of four novels that offer a new twist on the genre of crime fiction. The central character in all four books is the appealingly gruff and refreshingly human Jackson Brodie, a former policeman  turned private detective. Brodie is coming to terms with the recent breakdown of his marriage, is trying to maintain a relationship with his young daughter and continues to be haunted by a tragedy from his past. In this beautifully written and structurally complex introduction to Brodie, the detective becomes involved in three different cases:

1970: three-year old Olivia Land vanishes, without apparent trace, from her back garden never to be seen again. Years later, her sisters discover Olivia’s beloved soft toy Blue Mouse locked in their recently deceased father’s desk.

1979: a wife brutally murders her husband with an axe.

1994: Theo Wyre’s cherished daughter Laura is killed in an apparently random attack.

Three compelling mysteries. Yet, tellingly, I cannot remember ‘who dunnit’ or how the cases were solved. What I do remember is the profound sense of loss caused by Olivia Land’s disappearance. The bewildering sadness of the fact that a tiny human being can vanish without a trace, leaving nothing behind but an ownerless cloth mouse. Just thinking about Blue Mouse makes me sad; I am torturing myself here. I also remember vividly the devastation caused by Laura Wyre’s death, and the idea that a person and all they are can be erased utterly in just a second of mindless violence.

This is a novel, then, in which the crimes themselves are peripheral. They frame rather than drive the plot. Case Histories is not really about the detection or solution of crimes but their impact; it is about the way in which survivors deal with grief and loss. I fear I have made this book sound pill-poppingly depressing but, for me at least, that is far from the case. It is hauntingly beautiful and full of wit. Moreover, the combination of truly skillful, ‘literary’ writing and compelling, more populist plot devices is both interesting and satisfying.

So far, there are three other books in the series: One Good Turn; When Will There Be Good News; and Started Early, Took My Dog. All three are excellent but it is Case Histories that has stayed with me for years.

Before I go, you might be interested to know that all of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels have been adapted for television. These adaptations were broadcast by the BBC under the blanket title of Case Histories. The series starred Jason Isaacs (A.K.A. Lucius Malfoy) as Brodie and is well worth a watch.