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

20 Books of Summer 2016 – the Packing Up Version

I was quietly resisting joining the 20 Books of Summer challenge, which I’ve seen recently on the sites of some of my favourite bloggers: Cleopatra, Jose Ignacio, Fiction Fan, Margaret and, of course, Cathy, who started the whole madness. [My heroics are somewhat undermined by the fact that I was barely able to keep up with blog posts over the past three internetless weeks.] The reason I was hesitant was because I’ll be moving over the summer and that would mean ensuring that all the 20 books are in one easily accessible box plus eReader plus charger, preferably to be transported by car rather than removal companies. One additional thing to organise which may be the proverbial straw to break my back!

And yet… the prospect of making a bit of an indent into my TBR pile is too tempting! And, for once, I’ll be cutting down on the ‘official’ reviewing, so won’t be constantly disturbed in my reading selections by ’emergency’ (i.e. quick turnaround) reviews. So, yes, Cathy, I’ve come over to the dark summery side!

For June and July, I’m aiming to read some books which are unsigned by authors, which I’m unsure of whether I will want to keep on my shelves, so that I don’t have to lug them back to the UK and can donate them to local libraries instead. In August, however, it will be the turn of well-loved books which will stay at the very top of any suitcase I pack. Of course, I’ll also use my eReader (so many Netgalley requests making me feel guilty every time I look), but its battery seems to run out every day, so I don’t want more than 1/3 of my books to be ebooks.

I also took the summer theme a little further and have tried to make it run like a thread through my reading – so it’s all about travel, new places, events which happened in summer or sunny climes. I mean, why make life easy if it can be hard?

physicalTBR20

  1. Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children – well, the US is an exotic holiday location for me
  2. Mircea Cărtărescu: Fata de la marginea vieţii (The Girl from the Edge of Life) –  short story collection
  3. Wolf Haas: Komm, süßer Tod (Come, Sweet Death) – Austrian crime fiction
  4. Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – searching for self and meaning abroad
  5. Valérie Gilliard: Le Canal (The Canal) – short Swiss Rashomon-style novella set in spa town Yverdon
  6. Chico Buarque: Budapest – the Brazilian singer and songwriter’s novel about being stranded in Hungary
  7. Isabel Costello: Paris Mon Amour – because Paris and because I’ve been following Isabel online for quite some time
  8. Michelle Paver: Thin Air – not very summery, but it sure has become a holiday destination – mountain-climbing in the Himalayas.
  9. Ingrid Desjours: Les Fauves (The Beasts) – OK, the holiday premise stretches thin here, but there are connections to Afghanistan
  10. Milton Hatoum: Ashes of the Amazon – trying to escape one’s heritage, taking in the Amazon, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin and London.
  11.  Laurent Guillaume: White Leopard – running away from a dark past in France to the ‘peacefulness’ of Mali
  12. Sarah Jasmon: The Summer of Secrets
  13. Eleanor Wasserberg: Foxlowe – a closed community celebrating summer solstice ‘properly’
  14. Colin Niel: Ce qui reste en forêt – exciting new series and writer I met in Lyon, the setting is French Guyana
  15. Charlotte Otter: Balthasar’s Gift – set in South Africa and on my TBR list far too long
  16. Tim Lott: Under the Same Stars – an American road trip to find a missing father
  17. Grazya Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons – Polish and other nationalities engaging in politics and much more in Brussels
  18. John Burdett: Bangkok Haunts – because it’s been far too long since my last meeting with Sonchai Jitpleecheep
  19. Gaito Gazdanov: The Flight – summering on the French Riviera
  20. Stav Sherez: The Devil’s Playground – set in Amsterdam and I believe it was Stav’s debut novel

And, by complete chance, a perfect 50/50 split of men and women, translated/foreign and English-language fiction. The hardest thing, of course, will be sticking to the list and not allowing distractions to lead me astray… is that a butterfly I see in my garden?

Papillon at Lucenay, Rhone-Alpes, from trekearth.com
Papillon at Lucenay, Rhone-Alpes, from trekearth.com