Jolly Escapism: Travel Mysteries of Mary Stewart

I cannot for the life of me remember who it was on Twitter who a week or so ago raved about the page-turning qualities of Mary Stewart’s novels while she was on holiday, reviving her passion for reading. It wasn’t one of my regular blogging friends, but I thought the novels sounded like my cup of tea: a bit of mystery, a bit of romance and a LOT of travel and local atmosphere. So I checked if my local library had any of her books. Of course, they had her Merlin and Arthur books (which I’d read in my childhood), but there were only two available in that dreaded reserve stock section in the basement (where good books go to die).

Nine Coaches Waiting

Set in Haute Savoie, in a remote castle above Thonon, a short car ride from Geneva, this novel was published in 1958 and I think reflects the passion for exotic locations that was growing in 1950s Britain and also gave birth to the James Bond series. In many ways, this is the feminine way to travel the world as a woman of mystery, with some mortal danger but without the gadgets.

A French orphan who has grown up in England, Linda Martin, is hired as a governess and English conversation partner for a little boy, heir to a great estate in the Haute Savoie region. She soon strikes up a friendship with her ward Philippe, but has reason to suspect someone is planning to kill him. Of course I loved the familiar landscapes – and the French language, which is sprinkled liberally throughout the text without any translation. But what I liked above all is that the heroine is no milksop, this is no bodice-ripper (although there are some… hmmm, rather stalkerish moments, shall we say?), the characters are intelligent and witty, full of literary allusions. It’s like travelling with a good friend, but one who is also acutely aware (and resentful) of class differences.

Of course it all ends happily ever after (I’m sure that’s not a spoiler – although I still think she ends up with the wrong man), but I enjoyed the non-saccharine escapism.

Airs Above the Ground

This time we are in Austria, in a complicated story of espionage, missing husbands, travelling circuses and Lipizzaner horses (the title refers to the complicated acrobatic leaps that these fantastic creatures do in dressage). This was published a little later, in 1965, and this time the heroine Vanessa March has a proper job (she is a trained vet) although she is married and prepared to give her career up to have children. As in the previous novel, she establishes a good relationship with a young boy who becomes her travel companion and we get a lot of the local atmosphere (less of the language, because Vanessa does not speak German).

So you might say that these books are written to formula. Looking at the blurbs on some of the others, they all involve an intrepid young woman going somewhere abroad, stumbling across a puzzling situation, solving it after hair-raising adventures, often helped by a younger brother-type figure. It might become a little stale if I were to read 5-6 books like this in quick succession, but with two set in different but equally familiar and beloved locations, I really enjoyed them.

There is a mix of old-fashioned machismo that her heroines seem content to put up with, and views which must have been quite progressive for her time. Let me give just one example of each. In the first passage, Vanessa is talking to her husband.

‘I love you very much, Lewis.’

He made the kind of noise a husband considers sufficient answer to that remark – a sort of comforting grunt – then reached across the pocket of his jacket where it hung over the chair, for cigarette and lighter…

Yet the author also expresses concern about the poisoned environment in England (compared to the Alpine meadows teeming with insects and life), or feels a burden of guilt when she encounters a secondary character who has dwarfism and she tries a little too hard to react ‘normally’. She is also spot-on about the Viennese ‘that warm, easy Viennese charm, which – as Vienna’s friends and enemies both agree – “sings the song you want to hear”‘. Some of her best observations in fact are throwaway remarks about secondary bit players and she makes them sound like online trolls:

… was one of those angry natures that feeds on grievance; nothing would madden her more than to know that what she complained of had been put right. There are such people, unfortunates who have to be angry before they can feel alive…’

Hodder & Stoughton have reissued many of Mary Stewart’s ‘modern’ fiction over the past few years under the Beloved Modern Classics label. They are set in Corfu, Crete, Madeira, Lebanon, Provence, the Pyrenees and various Scottish and English locations. They look eminently collectible, as you can see from the two covers above, although I believe most of them are only available on Kindle. I read them on a rainy, stormy weekend in bed and they proved to be great escapism. But I think they’d also be the perfect books to take along with you on a lazy summer holiday, to read in your deckchair on the terrace in the shade, while sipping your iced coffee or pastis.

Bastide de la Paix in Luberon

How Challenging Were My Challenges?

2013 was the first year I joined in any online challenges and I am very pleased I did so. You sometimes need that extra little push or public commitment to go beyond the borders of your little world (or at least, I do).

 

2013GRC_mediumSo, how did I do?

 

I completed Kerrie’s Global Reading Challenge, which this year was still hosted on her Mysteries in Paradise website. Kerrie herself is a fantastic resource of information about crime fiction not just from Down Under, but worldwide, and I have learnt so much from the enthusiastic fellow participants in the challenge.

 

I completed the Medium Level of the Challenge, which meant two books from each of the six geographical continents, plus a seventh continent which could be a realm of fantasy or Antarctica or something you haven’t tried before. ¬†Here are the books I chose (quite different from the list I had originally planned, subject to availability and mood).

 

Africa

 

Deon Meyer: Thirteen Hours РSouth Africa

 

Michael Stanley: Death of the Mantis РBotswana

 

Asia

 

ŇĆsaka GŇć: The Red Star of Cadiz – Japan and Spain

 

John Burdett: Bangkok Eight РThailand

 

Australasia/Oceania

 

Arthur W. Upfield: Murder Down Under РAustralia

 

John Enright: Pago Pago Tango – American Samoa

 

Europe

 

Jean-Claude Izzo: The Marseille Trilogy РSouthern France

 

Stefan Slupetzky: Lemmings Zorn РVienna, Austria

 

North America

 

Louise Penny: Dead Cold  РQuebec, Canada

 

M. J. McGrath: White Heat РNorthern Territories, Canada

 

Julie Smith: Mean Woman Blues РNew Orleans  (because I felt guilty about ignoring the US)

 

South America

 

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza: The Silence of the Rain – Brazil

 

Leonardo Padura: Havana Gold РCuba

 

Seventh Continent

 

Elizabeth Kostova: The Historian Рparanormal, vampire, historical

 

Alan Bradley: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows – Flavia de Luce series, historical, YA

 

All in all, a fantastic challenge: it may sound clich√©, but it really¬†opened up a whole new world to me. I’ve always enjoyed travelling and reading about local atmosphere and customs in books, so these took me to places I may not have visited otherwise. There was only one book I really didn’t like (The Historian) and one which I found average (Mean Woman Blues). All of the others were good to excellent. I discovered writers that I am most certainly going to read more of (Louise Penny, John Burdett, Garcia-Roza, Michael Stanley).

 

My favourite discovery was the unparalleled king of the Mediterranean Noir: Jean-Claude Izzo, who completely transported me to the world of Marseille and got me listening to its music.

 

2013transchallenge-3(1)Until recently, I did not believe I had completed the Reading in Translation Challenge – or rather, I felt I had not reviewed enough books for it. Of course, I could have entered the same books for both challenges: Deon Meyer,¬†ŇĆsaka GŇć, Garcia-Roza and Padura would all have qualified. And I did read and review some other excellent works, such as The Mussel Feast, A Man in Love, A Crack in the Wall¬†or Pietr the Latvian. So, in the end, I think I will consider that challenge complete too. Thank you, Curiosity Killed the Bookworm for enticing me to do it!

 

What challenges am I participating in for 2014? I would like to continue with both of the above challenges, but this time limit it to 1 book for each continent for the Global Reading Challenge and 6 books of translated literary fiction (rather than crime fiction, however much I love it). The reason I am being modest in this respect is because I am introducing two major challenges of my own:

 

1) The Clear My Physical and Virtual Bookshelves Challenge (CMPVBC – catchy title!) – as of today, I have 56 books on my Kindle, 21 on my shelves, and 8 on my laptop, all waiting for me. So that brings my target up to 85 before I have even taken a step.

 

2) The ‘My Favourite Countries’ Focus – I used to love reading books in German and Japanese, while Brazil is my favourite country. I want to reignite that passion and catch up with the best of contemporary writing from these countries. I have no upper target, but I would like to read at least 3 books from each of these countries). ¬†I already have a few on my shelves: Arjouni, Zweig, Bernhard Schlink, but am constantly coming up with great new suggestions from outstanding bloggers such as Tony Malone, Simon Savidge, Dolce Bellezza, Words and Peace¬†and Jackie at Farm Lane Books, to name but a few who inspire me.

 

English: Old book bindings at the Merton Colle...
English: Old book bindings at the Merton College library. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Wish me luck – I will let you know how I get on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plans for My Reading Challenges

globeI’ve been doing a bit of research for the two reading challenges I am planning to complete this year: the Global Reading Challenge (dedicated to crime fiction) and the Translation Challenge (any kind of literature). ¬†Along the way, I have been inspired by such wonderful bloggers and review website such as: Fair Dinkum Crime, Mysteries in Paradise, Pulp Curry, Margot Kinberg, Mrs. Peabody Investigates, Savidge Reads, Crime Fiction Lover¬†(OK, I review for them too, but I learn so much from the other reviewers there), Rhian Davies, Stuck in a Book,¬†¬†and Smithereens. ¬†And of course, the incredibly prolific reader and private investigator of world literature, ¬†Ann Morgan of ¬†A Year of Reading the World. Too many others to list here, but I will do so as I read each novel they recommended, and link to their reviews as well.

Of course, as we say in Romania, sums at home don’t match your sums in the market-place. ¬†In other words, what I plan and what I actually end up doing may be quite different things. I may not find these books easily in my rural, non-English-speaking community. ¬†And I can’t possibly buy them all. ¬†So there may be some last-minute changes to reflect the quirks of the local libraries.

Anyway, here is my list for the Global Reading Challenge – medium level (2 from each continent):

Europe MapFor Europe: 

Jean-Claude Izzo: The Marseille Trilogy – a city I have never visited before, either physically or through books

Alfred Komarek: Inspector Polt series РI have yet to read crime fiction by an Austrian author, despite my love of all things Viennese.  Change of plan here, as I have heard very good things about the Lemming series by Stefan Slupetzky, also set in Vienna.

For Australia/New Zealand:

P.C. Laird: The Shadow World (NZ)

Sulari Gentill: A Few Right-Thinking Men (AUS) Have been unable to find this, so opted instead for Arthur W. Upfield and his Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series.

For North America:

M.J. McGrath: White Heat (Canada)

Penny Louise: Armand Gamache (a name which always reminds me of a dessert – chocolate ganache) – Quebec

translationglobeFor Asia:

Natsuki Shizuko: Murder at Mt. Fuji (Japan)¬†I had no luck finding this, but was fortunately sent a book to review by a Japanese thriller writer who is obsessed with Spain and flamenco guitars. ¬†So I read ‘The Red Star of Cadiz‘ by ŇĆsaka GŇć, to be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover website.

Martin Limon: Jade Lady Burning (South Korea) Yet another change to the planned schedule, as I got to hear and meet John Burdett, so I want to read his crime novels set in Bangkok. 

For Africa:

Andrew Brown: Coldsleep Lullaby (South Africa) 

Deon Meyer: Thirteen Hours  (South Africa)

For Central/ South America:

Leonardo Padura Fuentes: Havana Red (Cuba)

Garcia Roza: Silence of the Rain (Brazil)

Seventh Continent (a new territory, outside our comfort zone):

Ben H. Winters: The Last Policeman (sci-fi)

Elizabeth Kostova: The Historian (historical, paranormal)

I am a little bit worried, for instance, that for all of that magnificent continent of Africa, I ended up with two South African writers.  So if you can recommend anybody else, from another African country, that would be wonderful.  Any other suggestions or comments on my choices would also be appreciated.

GlobalFinally, for the translation challenge, there is no set number, but I would like to aim for between 5-10 of these. ¬†Some of them are still crime fiction (am I cheating a little here?), but others are in more varied genres. ¬†This is a live, changing list, so feel free to make further recommendations. ¬†For instance, it’s a little light on feminine voices, so I may make up by reading lots of English-speaking women writers instead.

Petros Markaris: The Late-Night News –¬†Liquidations¬†√†¬†la grecque

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Shadow of the Wind

Mario Vargas-Llosa: Who Killed Palomino Molero?

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude

Orhan Pamuk: The Museum of Innocence

Diego Marani: New Finnish Grammar

Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast

Roland Topor: The Tenant

Miyabe Miyuki: All She Was Worth

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris

I promise to post reviews along the way.  And of course, I will have the usual books to review and books written or recommended by friends, plus lots of English writers to enjoy.  I wonder how many I will get to read this year? 52 would be a good place to start, one for each week of the year.