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


Filed under Uncategorized

Not the Chosen One

I’m always interested in tropes and the way authors play with them. At this point, the Chosen One trope has become both a huge cultural force and almost a parody of itself. Sometimes an author will choose to engage with it, but in a way that’s a little bit different. Maybe the story is narrated by someone close to the Chosen One, maybe the person who thought they were chosen isn’t. Because I don’t want to spoil the books below, I’m not saying exactly how they reflect this, but they do in some form. And I’d love to hear if you have a favorite I’ve missed!

White Cat by Holly Black
The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine
The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge
The Story of Owen/Prairie Fire by E.K. Johnston
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
UnLunDun by China Mieville
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon




Filed under book lists, bookish posts

When twists work, and when they don’t

I’ve been thinking recently about twists in stories, which can either be the best or worst reading experiences. They can turn a book from good into great, or they can jar you right out of the story in a pretty drastic way. Most stories contain revelations of some sort, but twists go beyond that–they change what we thought we knew in a way that can be hard to pull off but great to read.

Now, I do believe that to a certain degree whether they work or not is highly subjective. When I talk about what works for me as a reader, I do mean what works for me. I’m not intending to be prescriptive and say that my way is the only right one. Also, what works for me right now, as a late-twenties experienced reader. It’s possible that I would once have loved stories that now fall flat for me.

All of that being said, I have come up with a few elements that, when combined, usually create an effective twist for me:

  1. We gain access to a character’s secrets: There’s something that the character has been hiding, whether it’s from the reader, from another character(s), from themselves, or some combination. In fact, I do think that stories where there’s an element of self-deception can be especially spectacular when they come off. (I’m thinking of Stephanie Kuehn’s Charm and Strange, especially.)
  2. The new information confirms our hopes/suspicions: This is one of the trickier parts to write well, but I think it’s essential. Rather than simply surprising us with new information–something that really only works in the denouement of an Agatha Christie book–the revelation makes sense of what has been puzzling us throughout the book. Or alternatively, it gives us the thing we’ve been hoping for but didn’t dare believe (and yes, I am thinking of Code Name Verity here: “She never told them ANYTHING.”)
  3. The new information also causes us to see the character in a new way: I think it’s crucial that the twist not only have an effect on the plot, but on how the reader views the character. Which means that the characters have to be well drawn in the first place–complex and contradictory, perhaps, with the kind of evasions and misdirections humans are in fact prone to. There need to be enough holes to make us wonder to begin with, and enough substance to make sense of it all later.

In my opinion, twists might be jarring or upsetting. We don’t necessarily have to like the characters better after we find out their secrets (Too Like the Lightning is a good recent example of this). But what we learn shouldn’t be antithetical to what we already know. If a story has carefully set up a character loving the color blue, for instance, suddenly saying, “AHA! They actually hate the color blue and have loved purple all along!” doesn’t work too well for me. In that case, a twist can become a “gotcha!” on the part of the author.

It’s true that sometimes authors are doing, or trying to do, interesting things with the trust the reader places in the narrator. Going back to Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a great example of this. But this kind of trade on trust is especially tricky to pull off, because when it fails, it leaves the reader with no investment in continuing the story.

So, for instance, the recent issue with Hydra!Cap is first that it is TERRIBLE, but also that it rewrites the Captain America that people love and are invested in. “SURPRISE, Steve Rogers was in Hydra all along!” is a “gotcha!” twist that alienates readers, rather than revealing a deeper layer of complexity in Steve/Cap’s character. Contrast this with Captain America: Winter Soldier, where the twist that Hydra has infiltrated SHIELD from the beginning highlights and amplifies Steve’s existing inner conflict over his own role and future.

The other place where twists can fail for me is in telegraphing what’s coming too early. I know there are a lot of different opinions on this one, but for me the twist of We Were Liars is one that I saw so early in the story that the whole rest of the book was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is one of those very subjective ones, where it worked really well for some readers and not at all for others. But the danger of setting up the revelation is showing it too clearly.

As I said at the beginning, twists can be either incredibly rewarding or incredibly frustrating as readers. I’m curious to know if they’re something other people are drawn towards, and what your favorites are!


Filed under bookish posts

Icon by Genevieve Valentine

icon(Orthodox readers, this is not an Orthodox book, despite the title! I’ll talk about this a bit more below but I wanted to make it clear right away.) (Everyone: There are spoilers for Icon below. I couldn’t talk about what I wanted to in this book without spoiling it, I’m sorry, please don’t read any more if this bothers you!)

Oh, friends. This book. However this review turns out, please understand that the temptation to just add that Community “MY EMOTIONS” gif and hit schedule is going to be super high. Genevieve Valentine is really good at making me feel lots of things, it turns out. Also, she writes books that I possibly would not read from anyone else but which are so good that I consider her an auto-read author at this point. I’m pretty sure she could imbue the phone book with strong characters and a tense plot, also that I would like it.

In this case, Icon is a sequel to last year’s Persona. Both are near-future political thrillers, about the same main characters, Suyana and Daniel. I finished Persona and was astonished that both of them made it out of the book alive.

Well, they don’t both make it out of Icon alive.

Icon has a sense of narrative inevitability from page one, and a sense of tension and doom that increases to an almost unbearable extent over the course of the book. I both knew and felt that things were gong to end badly. I kept finding myself holding my breath until the most immediate danger had passed. And yet, I kept reading, even knowing I was going to cry.

I cried so much.

Suyana and Daniel are completely compelling, partly because Valentine has a keen sense for what to tell us and what to leave out. Asking the reader to fill in the blank spaces makes us more invested, keeps us caring, keeps us turning the page. In Persona, we had a sense of them as unlikely partners. Here they’re separated. But they keep fighting and fighting, for the soul of the IA, for the people they care about, for each other. They never get a break or a rest, they hardly have a single moment alone together, and yet their relationship is so potent that it becomes the center around which the story turns.

(I also love that Suyana gets to be calculating without being heartless.)

But Valentine is also excellent at throwing her characters into tense, impossible situations. In Girls at the Kingfisher Club and Persona, they manage to win some sort of space, peace, love. Icon, on the other hand, refuses any way out. I have always thought that West Side Story is more tragic than Romeo and Juliet, because one of them lives and has to go on living. In Icon, not only does Daniel die, and in dying save them, but Suyana “wins” at a horrific personal cost. She ends the book almost entirely alone, muddied by politics. She has done the right thing for the IA and therefore the world. It’s not exactly a bleak ending. But it is a hard one.

Now, I do have to say that I’m not a fan of the title. I understand what Valentine is trying to conjure–the complexity boiled down into a symbol. But since I am Orthodox and the word icon has a primarily religious connotation for me, and since that religious understanding is quite different than Valentine’s usage, it just…doesn’t work for me. I realize this is a personal issue, and one not every reader will share.

I’d recommend this book for people at the unlikely intersection of: invested in Hiddleswift (I have not even gotten into Suyana’s fake relationship with Ethan!), interested in politics, and the red carpet, and into Code Name Verity. (Weirdly enough, I feel like I know multiple people who fit that profile.) Actually, you don’t have to be interested in all of those things, or maybe even any of them. You just have to be willing to let these characters in and then let them break your heart a little.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Saga Press; adult science fiction


Other reviews: Amal El-Mohtar at NPR; Mahvesh Murad at; Bridget Keown @ RT; you?



Filed under bookish posts, reviews

Mary Stewart Reading Notes: Nine Coaches Waiting

nine coachesIn September I’ll be going back to some of Mary Stewart’s books, beginning with Nine Coaches Waiting. Spoilers will be everywhere! Also I do some yelling in this post. Consider yourself warned.

Nine Coaches Waiting is Stewart’s fourth book, published in 1958 and which is set contemporary to its publication date. I’ve read it a couple of times already and have always had mixed feelings about parts of the plot and characterization. SURPRISE, I still feel that way! I also want to say right away that there is a disabled character in this book and the representation is TERRIBLE (evil, manipulative, villain of the whole thing). I do not recommend it on that score at all.

One of the things I like to do in these Reading Notes series is trace out images or themes the author keeps returning to. With Stewart, there are a couple that I noticed which are certain present in Nine Coaches Waiting. First, she tends to weave in allusions to literature throughout her books–her heroines are usually educated in the classics, and Stewart also includes epigraphs and framings. In this case, each chapter is headed with a quote from an earlier book, whether it’s Dickens or The Revenger’s Tragedy. They all have some connection to the following chapter, and generally from books with some sort of mystery/revenge/suspense element.

Because Stewart is very consciously in conversation with the Gothic tradition, we see her playing with the themes of the possibly dangerous charmer/seducer. Leon and Raoul both fall into this pattern, with Leon coming down on the side of dangerous and Raoul on the side of charmer (sort of, more on that later). There’s also the grand but crumbling house, the ominous servants, and etc. But Stewart is also consciously and deliberately referencing Jane Eyre, which she does in some form or another in almost every book she wrote. We see it in Linda’s position as a governess, in her initial meeting with Raoul which echoes Jane’s meeting with Rochester down to the fog and the almost-accident, in her care for her young charge when no one else seems to care for them.

However much I do like Nine Coaches, I can’t say it exactly measures up to Jane Eyre.

I do like Linda, however. I think she’s one of Stewart’s more successful narrators, which is a little different than saying she’s one of Stewart’s more successful main characters. Her voice is clear and sharp from the first page, and I found myself interested in the way she both keeps secrets and tries to uncover them. Right from the beginning we see that she dislikes being manipulated, that she’s impetuous, fond of beautiful and romantic things. She’s has a moral backbone which drives a lot of the book, and I appreciated seeing that without her being goody-goody.

However, there’s generally a tension in Stewart’s books between the strength of the heroines and the inevitable romantic entanglement, and it’s here that I found myself frustrated with Linda and with the book generally. Both Raoul and Leon have a kind of wobbling effect on her, which is part of the danger that both promise but which is never entirely dealt with.

In fact, let me say here and now that this is a good old case of some great gaslighting! Leon tells Linda that she’s being “a little hysterical” (My note at this point, verbatim: “DAGGERS, LEON”) and generally tries to convince her that everything she’s worried about is in her head. When Raoul kisses Linda and she doesn’t react positively he writes “It was only a kiss after all” (SHUT UP, RAOUL!). And we’re supposed to believe that Linda is going to live happily ever after with him.

This kind of comes to a head for me when Linda believes that Raoul is part of the plot to kill Philippe. Eventually she discovers that this is not the case, thanks to some handwavey explanations from Stewart. Raoul was completely innocent and is hurt that she suspected him. And it doesn’t bother me that he was innocent the whole time, or even that Linda’s suspicious were wrong. It does bother me that she then apologizes. She had what she believed was good evidence for his involvement and she APOLOGIZES FOR EVER BELIEVING IT.


So, yeah, the romance angle is by far the weakest part of the book for me. I MEAN, WHY. However, I do genuinely enjoy the mystery aspect and Stewart’s prose is lovely. She has a gift for descriptions that shows up in all of her books, and here she combines it with a sense of atmosphere and doom that is really effective. I just wish that Linda’s story didn’t end in a marriage that seems destined for misery.

Book source: public library
Book information: 1958, adult romance/mystery



Filed under bookish posts, reading notes, reviews

Currently reading: 9-7

All the books I'm actively reading. Send help,

All the books I’m actively reading. Send help.


I don’t know how this happened–no, I do. I’ve been reading several intense books in slow spurts because they are really good but also my heart can’t handle too much at once. And then I’m trying to read several other books that have taken me a bit to get into, so I keep pulling a new one off the shelf and trying it. Anyway, from the top:

Dove Exiled by Karen Bao: Sequel to last year’s Dove Arising. I am finding the writing a little choppy, but I’m really interested in what Bao’s doing with the world and characters.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken: For October’s reading notes, so I won’t say much more. Except–this book is 168 pages long. One hundred sixty-eight! Take note, authors.

Perfect Liars by Kimberly Reid: This is a fun diverse teenage con/heist story–great for kids who have aged out of The Great Greene Heist.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine: I’m rereading this with librarian book club and auuugghhhh the emotions. They might actually be worse the second time through?

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi: It’s very difficult to say what’s happening in this book, but in a good way. (I tend to like texts that make you work for their meaning, as long as they’re not being jerks about it.)

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips: This book is making me feel way too many things. It’s fine. (I just DM the best/worst bits to the friend who recommended it to me. Thanks & you’re welcome.)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: A re-read because I wanted to and apparently wasn’t reading enough intense books? Yeah, I don’t know either.

Monstress by Marjorie Liu: My hold at the library FINALLY came in!! This is a lot more violent than I tend to like my comics, but the visual sensibility is so much my thing that I’m still reading. (Art deco-ish fantasy monsters=I’m there.)

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge: I JUST started this one, but I’ve gotten far enough in to be hooked. Definitely a story I’d only trust from an #ownvoices author, though!

Jupiter Pirates: The Rise of Earth by Jason Fry: Third in a middle grade SF series I’ve been enjoying! Fry has years of experience writing Star Wars tie-ins and he clearly has a good grasp of what kids like in their SF. I have a feeling that things are going to Happen in this one.


Filed under Uncategorized

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite TV shows based on books

This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries: (I MEAN) Based on the series of the same name by Kerry Greenwood! I haven’t actually read the books yet (please don’t tell my friend Ally), but the Australian TV series is one of the most delightful shows I know. It’s got such wonderful female characters–not just Phryne, but Dot and Jane–and some sizzling romance PLUS gorgeous costumes.

Call the Midwife: Based on the series of memoirs by Jennifer Worth. Confession–I haven’t seen the most recent series, and lost interest a bit. BUT as a whole I absolutely love this show. It’s rare that I manage to get through an episode without both laughing and crying. As usual, this is one where the characters make the show. Jenny, Chummy, Trixie, & Cynthia feel like friends at this point.

Elementary: Based on Sherlock Holmes, of course! I really enjoy Elementary, and I think it’s a great example of a looser adaptation that works really well. Because the show relies on the relationship between Holmes and Watson, and the way that ties back to the original, it doesn’t need to stick strictly to the mysteries of the books.

All Creatures Great and Small: Based on the memoirs by James Herriot (yes, I know that’s not his real name). This was one of my favorite TV shows and series of books growing up. They’re really fun, and as a bonus you get Christopher Timothy being delightful, Peter Davison being silly, and Robert Hardy being Robert Hardy.

Bleak House (2005): Based on the book by Charles Dickens. I HAVE SO MANY BLEAK HOUSE FEEEELS. The book is one that I both love and am frustrated by (see also: all of Charles Dickens), but the adaptation does some really interesting things with the characters. Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther and Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock are always going to be my favorites. And there’s that one scene, augh, my heart.

North and South: Based on the book by Elizabeth Gaskell. This is a very rare case where I watched the adaptation before the book. And I love them both (I wrote part of a senior thesis on the book!) but AUGH THAT MOVIE. Yes, we could talk about Richard Armitage’s Thornton all day, but I also adore Daniela Denby Ashe as Margaret Hale. She carries the story perfectly. Also deeply loved: the cinematography, the music, the costuming choices.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Based on the book by Susanna Clarke. This isn’t a perfect adaptation, and since I’m a huge fan of the book I could nitpick what they got wrong forever. But, by and large, the writers and actors managed to distill the essence of a really complex, massive story into a few short hours. (I really warmed to both Charlotte Riley’s Arabella and Bertie Carvel’s Strange.) I will say, however, that I have very strong negative feelings about the changes to the ending, so if you’re super into the way the book ends, be forewarned.

Hornblower: Based on the series by C.S. Forster. So, something that doesn’t come up that often is how much of my childhood was spent reading books about the sea. My dad was kind of obsessed with nautical history and fiction, and I got into it too, around age 10. The Hornblower series isn’t my favorite book-wise, but I loved the TV adaptation, with Ioan Gruffudd, Paul McGann, and Jamie Bamber a LOT. (Archie!!) I haven’t rewatched it in several years, but it’s still one I have fond memories of.

Lizzie Bennet Diaries: Based on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. So, I have very strong feelings about Austen adaptations (P&P 95 forever, pls & thank you). Therefore, I was pretty nervous when I heard about a new vlog version. But I was quickly charmed by this version of Lizzie Bennet, and impressed by the way the writers updated the story.

Hollow Crown: TECHNICALLY, based on a series of plays (Shakespeare’s history plays) rather than a book, but I’m going include it anyway (because I can). I was really impressed by how well the mini-series translated the plays into TV, and the actors were great.



Filed under bookish posts