Mary Stewart Reading Notes: Thornyhold

In September I’ll be going back to some of Mary Stewart’s books, finishing up with Thornyhold. Spoilers will be everywhere! Consider yourself warned.

thornyholdThornyhold is one of Stewart’s late books, published in 1988. Interestingly, she sets it earlier, with Gilly writing down the story of her youth as a grandmother. I think this is a wise choice, as it lets her write the kind of old fashioned story she seems more comfortable with. I’m quite fond of this book–it’s actually the only Stewart I own, though that’s mostly by accident. It’s not exactly memorable in the sense of Things Happening. It’s a quiet, gentle story about a young girl and her cousin and their possibly magical house.

Actually, as I was reading this, I said on Twitter that this was a strong case of “do I like this book, or do I just want to live in this house.” I do like the book, quite genuinely, but I DEFINITELY want to live in that house. I am convinced that if I lived in Thornyhold I would do the dishes every single day and never leave all my stuff everywhere and magically do all the preserving I dream about and in short how do I make this happen?

I should also mention right away that as with Nine Coaches Waiting, this book is VERY BAD as far as disability representation goes. Really, truly bad. 0/10, Mary Stewart! I am able to enjoy the book regardless, but I completely understand if others aren’t able to.

The main character of Thornyhold is a young woman named Gilly Ramsey, whose major love in early life is her cousin Geillis. Her mother is disappointed in life and fairly cruel, Gilly herself is shy and wants more than anything to have animals and a place of her own. Neither of these seem at all possible until Cousin Geillis dies and leaves Gilly her house, Thornyhold. It’s with the entrance of Thornyhold that the plot, such as it is, kicks in, but I do like the beginning and its sense of wonder and childhood.

I’m aware that Mary Stewart wrote some fantasy books as well as romantic suspense, and I may have even tried one of them. But I haven’t searched them out because I suspect they wouldn’t be at all my cup of tea. Rather than straight fantasy, here there’s a quiet story with a little bit of magic underlying everything. (The first line, after all, is “I suppose my mother could have been a witch if she had wanted to.”) It’s the small magic of hearth and home, beautifully depicted.

Here there’s also a lovely sense of continuity and the past history of the house. In my opinion, Stewart is more successful here at weaving in the past than in Touch Not the Cat. I love the idea of the continuity of women who are the guardians of this domain, and I also love the sense of warmth and the (odd but real) relationship that Gilly has with them. The house and land are imbued with a sense of quiet history. Thornyhold is small, but it’s not unimportant; in its own way, it’s a kind of torch against the dark.

I wish, really, that Stewart had felt able to just leave a romance out of the story altogether. While Christopher John is nowhere near as annoying as Raoul (or even Adam), he also just doesn’t add much. I do like William (his son) but the whole falling into each other’s arms thing just seems forced here. I do think Stewart was trying to write a romance that fits Gilly, that’s about someone quiet, someone who’s a “late bloomer” (blech). But I also don’t think it’s really quite successful, although I appreciate that we see Cousin Geillis live a happy and full life without any need for romance at all.

In the end, this isn’t one of Stewart’s most memorable books, but it is perhaps her most comforting. And in its own quiet way, it’s trying to show–however flawed–a different kind of strength.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1988, adult fantasy/romance



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Links: 9-28-2016

What was Thor doing during Civil War? (I love this.)

At night, when I walk alone, I carry a makeshift weapon“: True and devastating

I made something! And I’m happy with it.

Really great guest post at Stacked Books about mental health and teens of color.

Both the BBC and The Guardian have produced some really important pieces on race in the US. Not sure what that says about US journalism, but here we are: “Too black, too strong

Gene Luen Yang was named a MacArthur genius! Also Claudia Rankine! It’s a pretty exciting list.

Also pretty exciting: the Kirkus prize finalists for 2016. Meg Medina, Sherman Alexie, Ashley Bryan, Jason Reynolds, Traci Chee–it’s a really diverse and interesting selection.

Someone from the UK needs to get me these stamps (I MEAN).



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Favorite books featuring food

Food can be a really powerful motif in books. It can be a sign of trust or distrust, a tool for worldbuilding, a way to show the preferences and background of characters. But sometimes it becomes really central to the story, even beyond that. Here are a couple of books where the main characters have a really important relationship with food in some way.


Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen: I loved the way the magic of the garden and plants intertwine with the magic of food in this book. The gentle, textured way Allen talks about Claire’s gift and her relationship to cooking make this probably my favorite book by Sarah Addison Allen.

all the Amor et Chocolat books by Laura Florand: No, I mean, I really tried to pick one here. I love The Chocolate Kiss deeply and truly, and I especially love Magalie’s gift, and Aunt Aja’s tea. But then there’s Gabriel’s rose from The Chocolate Rose, and and–basically, if you like food, this is the romance series for you!

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han: One of the (many) things I loved about this book was the way Lara Jean used baking to express herself, and also as an expression of how much she cares about the important people in her life.

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban: This is a bit of an outlier in the rest of this list given that it’s a picture book. But the memory of Albert’s lunch and the very particular way he eats it has remained with me so vividly for so long that I just had to include it anyway.

Relish by Lucy Knisley: I have a few reservations about the kind of–cultural tourism, is maybe the term I’m looking for?–in this book, but I also genuinely enjoy Knisley’s grapic novel memoir. The art is lovely, and each chapter has a hand-illustrated recipe to accompany it!

The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia McKillip: I re-read this book last year for my McKillip reading notes series, and I was hungry the entire time. The descriptions of the feasts are mouthwatering, but they’re also sometimes surprising. I loved the sense that McKillip gives of the economy of the kitchens, and the way they are their own world.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley: Rae is, of course, a baker and Sunshine is FULL of things like cinnamon rolls as big as your head and the intriguingly titled Death of Marat (I hear someone has made a recipe for this and I want to try it! baked good and jokes about the French Revolution). Making food is an important part of Rae’s life and McKinley definitely shows that.

The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier: I’m maybe stretching just a tad here, because this is less focused on food and more on taste–Araenè, one of the main characters, experiences magic as a taste. I loved the way Neumeier used this description to create a sense of magic that’s really vivid and different.

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon: I really enjoyed Silver Phoenix and its sequel when they came out a few years ago. One of the things I liked is the fact that Ai Ling unabashedly enjoys food. She thinks about it, she looks forward to eating it. It seems like often characters, especially female characters, aren’t allowed to do that.


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cybilsI’m late mentioning this, but once again I’ll be a judge for the Cybil Awards! I’m doing the YA Speculative Fiction category this year as I did last year. I’m really excited to be working with the other judges.

Part of the reason I love the Cybils is the fact that it’s a very open award–anyone can nominate their favorite book in the relevant categories as soon as October 1st comes along. So if you have a favorite book published for children or teens between October 16, 2015 and October 15, 2016, you should definitely nominate it! I’ll try to provide a list of books I would love to see nominated.

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Mary Stewart Reading Notes: Stormy Petrel

In September I’ll be going back to some of Mary Stewart’s books, continuing with Stormy Petrel. Spoilers will be everywhere! Consider yourself warned.

stormy-petrelStormy Petrel, published in 1991, is the latest book (chronologically) that I’m looking at in this series. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I liked revisiting it quite a bit–there’s some interesting stuff about gender and genre that I think Stewart couldn’t have written earlier–but I also found that it doesn’t necessarily have the staying power of some of her earlier books (for all of their problems).

Rose Fenemore is an English tutor at a fictional Cambridge college, Haworth. There’s no other real Jane Eyre connection, just the name, but it just shows that Mary Stewart couldn’t resist an allusion. But she isn’t just an English tutor. She also, secretly, writes science fiction under the penname HUGH TEMPLAR (I cannot make this up).

So, I am having a couple of different reactions to the whole sci-fi thing. When I was reading Stormy Petrel, I was also reading Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice B. Sheldon, aka James Tiptree Jr. And so the whole question of women writing SF and what name they write it under and male pseudonyms was and is pretty alive for me. Stewart doesn’t get into the gender part, merely says that Rose writes SF “Under another name, of course” and then goes on to give the (male) name. I think it’s maybe the “of course” that gets me.

But also, now that I’m thinking about it later, why on earth is the fact that Rose writes SF such a big deal? I mean–maybe I’m being naive, but this book is set contemporary to its publishing date. Does she really have to hide her writing to the degree she does? Would Cambridge care that much if one of their tutors turned out to have a sideline in spaceships? I don’t know, maybe they would. I am hardly an expert on the subject! It’s just an attitude I associate with an earlier era.

Regardless, the whole question of pseudonyms and hiding the SF writing does combine with Stewart’s general sensibility to give Stormy Petrel a very old-fashioned feeling. Assuming the action takes place in the late 80s or early 90s, you’d hardly know it, except for the fact that Ewen Mackay gets mixed up with drugs. There’s also a very tacked-on romance–tacked-on even by late Stewart standards. We barely get a sense of who Neil is, aside from some vague niceness.

As is standard with Stewart’s books, there’s an element of mystery here. Rose’s rented cottage is invaded by two unknown men (she reacts MUCH more calmly than I would), one of whom turns out to be Ewan Mackay, and the other Neil (under an assumed name). There’s a question of who inherits the estate on the island, with Ewan believing he’s an illegitimate child and therefore entitled to something. However, he’s a more pitiable character than a scary one. Rose and Neil have to try to foil his plans and recover the things he’s stolen from the house; there’s not a huge sense of urgency here, somehow.

What I’ve said so far probably makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book. In fact, I did like reading it quite a lot! Stewart has that great sense of place and gift for homey description. And Rose herself is a nice addition to Stewart’s heroines, even if she’s not as vivid as some of the others. It’s just that the strengths are a little diminished somehow, pastel versions of themselves, and so in the end the book isn’t very memorable either on the strength of the mystery or the romantic elements.

Book source: public library

Book information: 1991; adult mystery/romance




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Current Reads: 9-21-2016

I am still reading ALL OF THE BOOKS, but I’m trying to keep my pile down to a reasonable size, and also DNF books if they’re not working for me regardless of how well they came recommended.



Jupiter Pirates: The Rise of Earth by Jason Fry: YEP I’m still reading this one–but the middle lost my attention a bit and I finished several other books ahead of it. I sat down and read a good chunk this morning, so I’m hopeful I’ll finish this one soon. I still like it, but one of the storylines is just…weird.

The Mystic Marriage by Heather Rose Jones: I really liked the first of Jones’s Alpennia books, and then it took me forever to actually ILL this one. I’m about 40 pages in and loving it!

American Girls by Alison Umminger: I started this one awhile back and then it kept getting bumped down the priority list, although the beginning really hooked me. I’m curious to know how the rest will play out–plus I’d like to be able to chime in if/when it gets discussed on the PrintzBlog.

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar: Another one that I started and then set down–I’m always interested in families and how the choices of past generations echo. This one is right on the mg/YA line, and I don’t have any firm thoughts about that yet.

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips: Also still reading this one–I’ve been doing it a chapter at a time, but I’ll probably try to finish it up this week.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine: The last couple of weeks have been tough, so I put this one on hold because it’s so intense. However, the library copy is due back soon so I’m going to sit down with it this weekend!

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken: The next book in my Aiken re-read series! It’s the first one with Dido and I’m so excited.


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Mary Stewart Reading Notes: The Ivy Tree

In September I’ll be going back to some of Mary Stewart’s books, continuing with The Ivy Tree. Spoilers will be everywhere! Consider yourself warned.

the ivy treeThe Ivy Tree was published seven years into Mary Stewart’s career, in 1961, and in some ways it’s one of her strongest books. (Also one of my favorites.) It’s set in Northumberland, and weaves together some of the strands that Stewart returned to frequently. It’s an interesting one to reread, because the clues to the mystery are RIGHT THERE, I mean they are NOT HARD TO SPOT. And yet, the characters and their tangled relationships, and the vivid descriptions of the land and the farm are compelling enough that I didn’t even really mind. (Although I did notice.)

One of Stewart’s hallmarks is a well-read heroine, and she often opens with some sort of literary allusion. The Ivy Tree is no different–we start off with an old folk song for an epigraph and each chapter is headed with another bit of a folk song. There’s also a Shakespeare reference right on the first page.

But as I mentioned before, Stewart seems particularly fascinated by Jane Eyre and prone to include references in different ways. In Nine Coaches Waiting, it was the governess motif, but here it’s coming home to a burnt house (Thornfield/Forrest Hall) and an absent and scarred former lover. (Adam was even trying to save his wife, who had set a fire. I am not reading too much into this.)

She also includes hidden Roman ruins at least twice–here and in Touch Not the Cat. There seems to be a thread, at least in the English-set books, of the history of the landscape. The past is never that far from the present, whether it’s ancient, or more recent. In The Ivy Tree, family history is also important–it’s why Annabel left home, why Con makes the choices he does, and to a certain extent it’s why Annabel returns.

That’s the spoiler: Mary is totally Annabel. Now, it may be just because I read Brat Farrar again for last month’s series, but I kept wondering if Stewart was influenced by Tey at all. This story and Brat Farrar are kind of inverses of each other. Both main characters pretend to be someone they’re not. Brat pretends to be Patrick coming home; Annabel pretends that she is Mary Grey, but also that she is herself coming home. (This makes more sense in context.) I can’t say for sure, obviously, but regardless of Stewart’s intent, the echoes between the two are really interesting.

Now, to be fair, any mention of the Pennines is going to get me right away (thanks to both Code Name Verity and The Winter Prince). But also the opening of this book is just lovely: vivid descriptions of the landscape that somehow also give an instant sense of Mary/Annabel. There are other clues later in the book–her knowledge of Forrest Hall, of horse cant, of Adam–that give her away if you know what you’re looking for. I think, though, that the opening is where it starts. No stranger, however interested, could give such a detail and loving sense of the land.

And I do think that Stewart handles the emotional side of Annabel’s relationship to Whitescar and her family well. She’s playing a tricky game and we get to see just enough of it for the whole thing to work. I also liked the way Stewart uses Annabel’s cousin Julie as a foil, but also as someone that Annabel has an uncomplicated and warm relationship to. This can’t be said of any of the men in the picture, from Matthew right down to Con and Adam.

Stewart’s heroines have an unfortunate tendency to lose their backbone as soon as the romantic interest arrives. Annabel is really the least woolly of them all, in my opinion. She remains pretty self-reliant, although there are a few lapses into nonsense from time to time. And Adam, while not at all my cup of tea, is at least less annoying that Raoul. (Actually the man I like most in this one is Donald!) I did get a sense that there was a possibility of Adam and Annabel working through their past to a happy future together.

Still, for me the strengths of this one are much less the romance and much more Annabel’s common sense and strength. Combined with the texture of the family and landscape, it’s a story that I find quite compelling and enjoyable.

Book source: public library

Book information: 1961, adult romance/mystery


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