bookish posts reading notes reviews

Reading Notes: A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

Reading Notes is a semi-regular feature where I look more deeply at a book I’ve read before. This time, it’s Caroline Stevermer’s A College of Magics. As usual with these posts, there will be spoilers here, so tread carefully if that’s something you care about!

I first read A College of Magics back in 2010, and then again in 2011. It’s a book I’ve wanted to revisit for a while now, partly because I had a vague memory of the feeling of reading it but almost no memory at all of what happens. And someone mentioned it on Twitter as part of a college + magic discussion. So I’ve finally pulled it off the shelf. It was published in 1994, and a title that I think has largely been overlooked. Interestingly, my edition claims it is for ages 10 and up! I am not sure I agree; certainly it would be possible for an 11-year-old to read it, and even for that someone that age to enjoy it. But I don’t think the full depth is really going to come across unless that reader has also read Austen, Sayers, and Anthony Hope. Not impossible, but a rare child indeed.

This is, quite deliberately, a three-volume novel, all three volumes being contained in the one book. Jane and Faris read three-volume novels, which helps us picture the setting a bit, if you’re the kind of person who knows what they are. And the story does, in a weird way, follow what Wikipedia calls “[t]he particular style of mid-Victorian fiction, of a complicated plot reaching resolution by distribution of marriage partners and property in the final pages.” But Stevermer has also taken that structure and twisted it for her own purposes. Each volume takes place in a different location, propels Faris’s journey in different ways. Each section has a different focus and tone, but by the end we see how they fit together into a whole. It’s an interesting way to revisit an older way of writing and reading books.

A College of Magics starts with one image: a coach pulling up to the gates of a college with a new student. But reading it is like looking at a Bruegel painting by starting at one corner, with one figure. Stevermer gradually pulls the focus wider and wider as we start to understand the setting and personal/political intrigues. She certain does not infodump. In fact, it’s really the opposite of an infodump: a trust in the reader to figure it out. I can imagine this being fairly frustrating to some people; I really liked it. But so much depends on that beginning, that first image of Faris and Greenlaw, to engage the reader until it’s a bit more clear about what’s going to happen.

And what kept me reading and engaged were the contradictions that create tension and friction. We have a college of magics–the title, even!–which doesn’t teach magic (except that it does). And a student who, unlike most other students at most other schools of magic, doesn’t want to be there (except that she does). And who is also  a duchess without power in her own place (except that she has more than she realizes). On the surface, the first section is a rather nice school story, with the requisite scrapes and friends and difficulties with teachers. But you can see all the things that you don’t quite understand yet–the references to people and places, the way magic is both real and impossible, the relationship between Menary and Faris. And the fact that despite Greenlaw not having any classes that teach magic, the students manage to learn it anyway. It’s an accomplished piece of writing, relying on what’s not said, on the inferences characters make that aren’t necessarily spelled out for us.

This section is a bit Sayers-esque in some ways, and I’m sure the book has been described as Sayers, but with magic. This is and isn’t true. There are connections, in the form of the many allusions, the college setting, and an unlikely romance that’s slightly horrifying to the main character. But Faris very much is not Harriet. She’s both more sure of her desires and much younger. She is very much herself: full of duty and temper, stubbornness and loyalty. Moreover, where Shrewsbury is a still center for Harriet, Greenlaw is not for Faris–although that idea is borrowed a bit later on. I do think that people who enjoy Sayers are likely to enjoy A College of Magics, however, so in that sense the recommendation is true.

What’s also gradually established is a kind of slipwise setting. This is our world, Edwardian England–but not. We’re in a college that never existed, a country and duchy not on any map, etc. The geography of this whole idea was intensely frustrating to me, perhaps because I’m a little too literal at times. Mentions of Ruritania as real help set the stage, but when we eventually arrive at Galazon and Aravill, it makes approximately no sense whatever. It seems like it’s supposed to be Eastern European, but everything is filtered through the Anthony Hope-style British-centered romance adventure stories. So the culture isn’t right for Eastern Europe, but it’s also not quite British. I wasn’t nearly as frustrated by this on previous reads, so ymmv as they say.

However, there are some lovely descriptions of the landscape of Galazon, the duchy that’s supposed to be Faris’s inheritance if her evil uncle Brinker doesn’t get his hands on it. Galazon is the geographical center of the book, that everything else turns on. So it’s interesting to note that it’s literally the center of the book as well, with the sections taking place in Greenlaw and Aravill bookending it on either side. Faris’s identity and understanding of herself are wrapped up in Galazon, so much so that she sometimes has difficulty seeing beyond it.

So much of this book is woven through with questions of families and inheritances and duty–in small ways with Jane’s family who give her access to diplomatic information but also ask her to spy on her best friend. In larger ways with the Nallaneens–their history as independent rulers, their sense of pride in their land and their people, their temper. The conflict between Faris and Brinker is complicated by the fact that Brinker truly cares about Galazon. But we see negative effects of this theme most clearly in the  Paganells, the ruling family of Aravill. Menary is the main antagonist of the book, a self-centered and power hungry person who delights in cruelty. The king is vain and weak. And Agnes, his other daughter uses Galazon for her own ends in ways that even Brinker wouldn’t.

The last section of the book is the most magic-filled, and perhaps my favorite. This is partly because all the threads that have been established come together, and partly because of the climax of the story which is beautiful, effective, heartbreaking. I almost always like endings that have a bit of bittersweetness to them (blame my early love of Tolkien) and this one does. Faris gains her power as Warden of the North, but she loses Galazon in the same moment that it’s most hers. Tyrian is saved but at a cost. We see that Faris will have to learn to understand herself in a new way.

But there’s also this moment: “As sure of her own strength as she was of the north wind’s, she sent herself into the heart of the rift. In the heart of the rift, she found the heart of balance, the heart of rest. For a blazing, endless moment, as all pain eased, the world held still around her.” There are these glimpses, woven backward and forward through the book, when Faris finds something deep and real, peace and a center that give her power.

While I like the book as a whole and enjoy the various settings and threads, what has stayed with me is the feeling of the deep magic and Faris herself. This really shows Stevermer at her best: synthesizing and playing with bits of other books, while also making something new and beautiful. I’ve enjoyed revisiting it a lot!

bookish posts reading notes

Cuckoo Song Reading Notes

I’ve been a Frances Hardinge fan for quite some time now, and I thought I’d revisit one of her books. I loved Cuckoo Song when it first came out as a UK edition and had very fond memories of it, but hadn’t actually reread it since. This post is very full of spoilers, so please tread carefully if you haven’t read this one yet and are planning to!

This book opens with an absence, a complete absence of memory and identity. It’s an opening that basically goes against all the writing advice ever given, and just goes to show that all writing advice is relative. Anyway: the opening is fitting, because the story is haunted by the people who are missing. Sebastien, the real Triss, even Mrs. Crescent who is physically present but creates a kind of absence by her refusal to act. What’s here is defined by what’s gone. In this sense, Hardinge’s choice of setting, England in the early 1920s, is inspired. Everyone is defined by who they have lost, and there are ghosts woven throughout the story (although not real ghosts, in this particular book).

Into this, someone who believes she is Triss Crescent wakes up. But everything is wrong and she has to struggle to find out who Triss is, or was, and who she herself will become. One of the marvelous things about Hardinge’s writing here is how she shows the claustrophobia of Triss’s life. Her parents, acting out of both selfish and selfless reasons, keep her swaddled in cotton and Triss, acting out of her own selfish and selfless reasons, plays along. It’s a life that is afraid, that is circumscribed, that is almost sterile. Mr and Mrs Crescent have never learned to see their daughters beyond their own desires for them, their own conceptions of who they are. As Pen says, “They can’t tell when real Triss is fake-crying, so of course they can’t tell when Fake Triss is real-crying.”

So one of the questions that haunts the book becomes: who is your real family? Does Fake Triss, the changeling child, the one who Pen names Trista, have a family? Is it the Crescents? Is it the fairy who made her and sent her into the human world to eat? The book, marvelously, steps aside from the boundary of those two choices and offers another one: Pen and Violet, the real Triss’s sister and her dead brother’s fiance’. The two who have always been on the outside of that circumscribed family life because they are too angry, too rebellious, too fast.

There are almost no real villains in this book. Instead, Hardinge shows us the terrible side of love in the price that some of the characters are willing to extract to protect those they care for. Love that turns aside from who the person they care about really is; love that hurts or takes from others to protect its own; love that sees a danger to the object of its care around every corner. What sets Trista, Pen, and Violet aside from this darker side of affection is complicated, but I think it has to do with the fact that they aren’t fooling themselves. They see their own selfishnesses and own them where Mr. Crescent cannot see how his desire to protect his daughters is hurting them.

There are definitely some creepy moments in this story–the doll thing is…well…yes. IT SURE IS A THING. And there are some details of the fairy world that are pretty eerie. But what I’m left with at the end of the book is a sense of the power of truly caring for each other, the giddy rush of knowing that your life is up to you to live. “All was perhaps. Nothing was certain.” And that is lovely.

bookish posts reading notes reviews

Joan Aiken Reading Notes: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

This month, I’ll be going back to look at Joan Aiken’s Willoughby Chase series. Spoilers abound, as usual!wolves-of-willoughby-chase

“It was dusk–winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.”

So begins The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the first book in the Willoughby Chase series. I love this opening–there’s a kind of delicious thrill about it and the way it starts off quiet and calm and then turns into something very different. And it serves as a good summary of the world of the books, which looks a great deal like our Georgian/Regency England…except not quite. There are those wolves at the end of the paragraph, wolves that run freely through the countryside.

In fact, Aiken has created a wild alternate history, where Hanoverians in support of Bonnie Prince George are trying to overthrow the Stuart King James III. We see very little of the political aspect in this book, but it becomes a major theme and plot point in the rest of the series. In this first book, what we mostly get is a world that seems so much like our own, but a little bit slantwise.

Oddly enough, my personal history with these books doesn’t start here at all. My grandparents gave me a copy of Nightbirds on Nantucket when I was about 12, and I read that one first (and fell in love) and then went back and read the earlier books. And I do love the first two books! But at the same time my experience is very much filtered through the fact that my experience of these stories began with Dido Twite, who doesn’t appear here at all.

Instead, this is the story of Bonnie and Sylvia, the cousins who get thrown together when Bonnie’s parents invite Sylvia to live with them at Willoughby Chase and then depart for a long ocean-voyage, leaving them in the care of a distant relative none of them have ever seen before.

SHOCKINGLY, this does not go well.

Bonnie and Sylvia are both almost impossibly sweet characters. Bonnie is a little less so, but she’s also a privileged and slightly spoiled child, who is less saintly because she can get away with it. Sylvia seems too good to be true–quite literally. The other main character is a gooseherd name Simon who is an orphan and escaped from a cruel farmer. The Simon of later books is a kind-hearted and relatively fleshed-out character; here he’s more idealized. (We don’t see Bonnie or Sylvia again, as far as I remember.)

As is generally the case in Aiken’s books, the adults here are mostly either evil or naive and helpless. The sole exceptions are James the footman and Pattern, Bonnie’s maid, who try to look after the girls and later save them from the orphanage and Miss Slighcarp. But even in their cases, there’s an odd element of ineffectualness.

And then there are the Slighcarps and Miss Brisket, who represent the other kind of Aiken adults–the scheming ones, who try to take advantage of the well-meaning naive adults. These are the adversaries the children have to overcome, by sticking together and finding a way out of the mess. (Usually this means finding the one adult who will listen to them.) Miss Slighcarp especially is genuinely awful, as is Mr. Slighcarp/Grimshaw–in a less overt but even more realistic way.

What’s interesting to me about this book in particular is that, in a certain light, it looks like a familiar kind of morality tale. Bonnie and Sylvia are well-born, true-hearted, brave, and kind. Therefore, as is right, they eventually triumph. And yet, all through the book there’s also an ever-present sense of real danger. The triumphant ending is not assured. So although the story has the outward trappings of an uncomplicated “good children get their reward” trope, there’s a kind of subversiveness that’s lying just behind it. Aiken keeps reminding us about the howling wolves, and the dangers of the Slighcarps and Briskets of the world, and in doing so she makes it very easy to imagine the ways the story could go wrong.

On the other hand, the subversiveness only goes so far–I found myself frustrated at several points, with the assumption of Sir Willoughby as a good landowner who all the servants are happy to work for. There’s a lot of “dear Miss Bonnie” from the staff, who seem uncommonly attached to her. And finally, there’s an uncomfortable romantic view of Simon’s situation and life, which does express his general goodnatured optimism, but which also has a ring of “he’s happy with nothing, why aren’t you?”

It’s not that I expect some sort of political tract. I’m not even sure I think Aiken believed what she was writing, exactly. (The later books move away from this to a large degree.) Rather, I think that because she’s still writing within a certain type of story, and because she doesn’t quite have the experience or vision to reach beyond it yet, she’s still caught in this slightly antiquated sense of class and roles.

I do also have to say that on this reading I found the resolution oddly unexciting, especially considering the fact that there are literal wolves involved. It’s all a bit handwavey. Aiken is fond of ending books with a sudden surprise (in this case the reappearance of Bonnie’s parents), but in this case I didn’t feel there was much tension to begin with.

However, it is very satisfying to see Miss Slighcarp get her comeuppance.

All in all, I can’t quite say that this is my favorite book of the series–it’s clearly a first book, and Bonnie and Sylvia have nothing on Dido, or even Sophie. But it is certainly a memorable beginning.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1962, Jonathan Cape


bookish posts reading notes reviews

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

Looking for my other Mary Stewart posts?

Nine Coaches Waiting

The Ivy Tree

Stormy Petrel


bookish posts reading notes reviews

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

Looking for my other Mary Stewart posts?


Nine Coaches Waiting

The Ivy Tree



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

Looking for my other Mary Stewart posts?


Nine Coaches Waiting

Stormy Petrel

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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

Looking for my other Mary Stewart posts?


The Ivy Tree

Stormy Petrel


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Josephine Tey reading notes: Daughter of Time

This month’s Reading Notes series is on books by Josephine Tey (the better-known pen-name of Elizabeth MacKintosh). The first post is all about The Daughter of Time which is the other one of my two favorite Tey books. There will be spoilers! (But this all about history, so it doesn’t really matter.)

daughter of timeThe Daughter of Time is a mystery book in which a detective hypothetically solves the murder of the two Princes in the Tower while laid up in the hospital. It is also a book I love very deeply. I am not kidding about either part of this. Tey always tends to be a cerebral writer, for a writer of mysteries, but The Daughter of Time is something else altogether. As I wrote in my notes, “it’s a mystery…about history!” (Sorry, not sorry.)

But it’s also a very typically Tey sort of book. She tends to insert her points into the mouths of characters who are very unlikely to think such things. She’s not very interested in continuity (witness Marta, who basically is whoever Tey needs her to be for this particular book). There’s a nostalgia for a lost Britain which never was, which also ties back to the conservatism of Latchetts in Brat Farrar. She can’t help getting derailed with complaining about the Scots.

And yet, for all this–Teyness–it’s also full of her best qualities as a writer: her vivid characters, her ability to convince you that it all makes sense for as long as the book lasts. This was the book that sent me on a long path of Emotions About Richard III, which is weird and specific but here we are. Rereading it this time, I cared the most about the part of the book that’s about history, about what is remembered and forgotten. I will probably never not cry at the end (“This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city” sob sob sob.)

I also am reading it this time in the context of multiple ongoing conversations about American  history and the way it is sanitized and wrongly taught. I’m reading it against the backdrop of people claiming that the White House wasn’t built by enslaved people, or that it’s all okay because they were treated well. (Shut up, Bill O’Reilly.) It’s impossible not to think of this. It’s likewise impossible not to notice that Tey manages to be both revisionist and essentially conservative. That is–while The Daughter of Time makes some fascinating points about the way we’re taught history and that it isn’t benign or objective, it also spends a lot of time defending the British government. This is a weird tension that Tey never really resolves. Or rather, she doesn’t think it needs resolving.

(She does make the very accurate point that “when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you.” Anyone who has tried to point out George Washington’s flaws, for instance, will be familiar with this.)

Despite this, her eye to character and her look at Richard III’s reign as a mystery remain really compelling to me. Do I think that Henry VII murdered the Princes? I don’t know. Do I think the historical evidence is as clear as she paints it? Probably not. But it doesn’t matter, in a certain sense. I’m always moved by the story she does tell, of this king who inherited abruptly and did his best to make the country he ruled more prosperous, liberal, and just. I’m moved by the desire on the part of Grant to tell the truth and give him his due. Do I trust that Tey is telling the absolute truth here? No, not really. But I believe it, for the space of 200-odd pages, nonetheless.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1951, adult mystery (about history) (please don’t be mad at me) (I can’t help it)

bookish posts reading notes reviews

Josephine Tey reading notes: A Shilling for Candles

This month’s Reading Notes series is on books by Josephine Tey (the better-known pen-name of Elizabeth MacKintosh). This post is about her 1936 book, A Shilling for Candles, which features Inspector Grant. There will be spoilers! (But this matters less with Tey than with most mystery writers.)

a shilling for candlesI reread almost all of Tey’s books while working on this series (I skipped The Franchise Affair, which I have vague memories of disliking), and I was surprised by how much I liked A Shilling for Candles, given that I had no real recollection of it. For me, it’s the most successful of the more traditional mystery books that Tey wrote. While it certainly never reached the level of affection that I have for either Brat Farrar or The Daughter of Time, I did find it engrossing and enjoyable.

I think this is partly because Tey relies a little less on Grant as the center of the book. He’s certainly very much the main character, and good chunks of the book are devoted to his finding out information and setting up the twists and turns of the story. But we also get perspective from other characters, notably Erica Burgoyne, which opens everything up beyond Grant’s own thoughts and reactions.

As usual, Tey really shines in her descriptions of character and place. A lot of this book in particular rests on whether the reader buys Grant’s instinctive liking of Robin Tisdall, despite later events. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, but this reader did buy it. Perhaps this is partly because Grant has been shown to be a shrewd judge of character in other books, but I think it’s also because Tey is so good at quick, vivid character sketches. And there are some lovely, atmospheric descriptions of the countryside as well.

Like To Love and Be Wise, which revolves around an absent character, A Shilling for Candles partly relies on how much the reader is interested in and believes in the picture of Christine Clay we’re given. Tey is remarkably good at this, considering that she pulls it off in two separate books. Christine emerges as a complex, warm, vivid character, and Grant’s commitment to solving the mystery of her death makes sense.

Unlike most of her Grant books, Tey chooses to give us another point-of-view character. Erica Burgoyne, the daughter of the Chief Constable and a formidable character in her own right, who also acts as a bit of a leavening agent. It’s nice to see a character who is a little less cerebral and inward-turning that Grant himself. And while there’s a bit of exceptionalism and not-like-the-other-girls going on, I also found myself charmed by Erica and the strength of her inward compass.

Some of the more minor threads (Edward Champenis, for example) are wrapped up in a somewhat haphazard way, but this did bother me less than in other books. And it’s fair to say that Tey readers in general aren’t there for the whodunnit anyway. And there’s the kind of insularity and distrust of Other that runs through all of Tey to the point that it becomes, distressingly, almost standard.

Still, I do think this is one of her more successful mysteries as mysteries. The characters are rich and warmly drawn, the puzzle is convoluted and engaging, and I really liked the addition of another point of view to Grant’s. If it didn’t touch me as much as Brat Farrar or Daughter of Time, it is an book I enjoyed reading.

Book source: public library

Book information: 1936, adult mystery

bookish posts reading notes reviews

Josephine Tey Reading Notes: all the other ones

In this month’s Reading Notes series, I’m looking at books by Josephine Tey (Elizabeth MacKintosh). While I enjoy all of the Tey books I’ve read to varying degrees, I just don’t have much to say about several of them. So I’m combining those books into one post here. There are definitely spoilers below!

the singing sands man in the queue miss pym to love and be wise

The Singing Sands

Tey Writes a Thriller–except, being Tey, it’s a very cerebral thriller and not really one at all. (Despite the hopeful suggestiveness of the cover on the Scribner edition.) However, The Singing Sands is arguably more of a Proper Mystery than some, even if Grant is technically on sick leave for overwork and claustrophobia. (Poor Grant is surely the most sickly detective of the Golden Age.) This one takes place in Scotland, and despite all the negative things Tey likes to say about the Scottish, her descriptions of the countryside are so lovely.

Despite the fact that this is a bit more of a traditional mystery than some, Grant is very much at the center of the book. I don’t believe we get any other points of view here, and we see his reactions to the events. So as long as you care about Grant, then it works. I will say that when I first read this book, I found the mystery element pretty thrilling. So perhaps I am merely growing old and crotchety.

The Man in the Queue

This was the first Grant book, published in 1929 under the Gordon Daviot pen-name. It’s a bit unusual among Tey books because it begins with a murder! To be fair, A Shilling for Candles and The Singing Sands start with deaths that are later shown to be murders, but in The Man in the Queue, someone is just plain stabbed. The fact that it is a first book shows in some ways; the Grant here is not the Grant of Daughter of Time, or even The Singing Sands. These books are never particularly interested in continuity of character, but here he doesn’t really have any personality aside from a vague flair and an almost unbelievable obsession with the case. There’s also no mention of his Scottish connections, which by rights there should be.

Anyway, that’s all to say why I don’t find this one particularly memorable. It’s also a perfect case of a writer coming up with a mystery that’s so strong the detective can’t solve it and the denouement only comes about because the real killer confesses. I believe this is the only time that happens in Tey’s books, but it’s an odd sort of beginning to Grant’s fictional career.

Miss Pym Disposes

Miss Pym Disposes is a non-Grant mystery, published in 1946*. It takes place at a physical training college, which Wikipedia informs me is the kind of school Tey herself went to. It’s a peculiar kind of mystery (I find myself saying that about almost every Tey book) in that Lucy Pym, the main character, is on the scene almost by chance, and doesn’t really do much detecting. In fact, despite the book’s title, she’s overall quite passive. I have a lot of questions about the outcome–she really just decides to not say anything and go back to London? Leaving Mary Innes to do penance for a crime she didn’t commit? And Beau free to just keep on murdering people every time she doesn’t get her way? Come on, Lucy!

Also, sadly, the racism and xenophobia that run through several of Tey’s books are very much present here.

I have also just finished rereading Gaudy Night, and it’s interesting to compare these two books. They’re both mysteries that take place at women’s colleges, and which have at their center questions of female community and the responsibility and wisdom of learning. However, they also have a very different tone and outcome. (Lucy is no Harriet, sorry Lucy.) In some ways, Miss Pym Disposes is more challenging, since the wrongness is at the heart of the college, rather than Gaudy Night’s solution. However, I think it also doesn’t engage as fully or complexly with the questions it raises. Between Harriet and Sayers’ marvelous take on the careful balance between heart and brain, Miss Pym looks a little pale.

* tantalizingly, Miss Pym refers to an Alan that she almost married, but surely not!

To Love and Be Wise

To Love and Be Wise is a somewhat odd book, even for Tey. I think it only really works because her characters are so effective. She can create sympathy for situations and people who would seem boring or terrible in other hands. In any case, it’s not clear for large portions of the book whether an actual crime as occurred. And when the solution is revealed, it’s one that couldn’t be predicted or guessed at. I think there are some similarities with A Shilling for Candles, in the sense that the missing Leslie Searle comes to life through everyone else’s impressions of him. In one sense it’s a very masterful showing-off sort of book, but the ending left me a bit cheated. (I do like Grant’s acceptance of the reveal, but solutions to mysteries where the detective knows something the reader doesn’t will never be my favorite.)

In any case, I read this one less than a week ago and the details are already starting to fade, aside from the gentle send up of various literary genres. I believe there are some nice descriptions of the countryside and houses as well, which Tey usually did have an eye for. But by and large it’s not one that’s really stuck with me, either the first time I read it or now.