Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft

I was drawn to Beneath a Burning Sky by the setting – Egypt in the late 19th century – and comparisons to other authors I’ve enjoyed, such as Victoria Hislop and Dinah Jefferies, made it sound even more appealing. Including it on my 20 Books of Summer list ensured that I got to it quickly but, although I did find a lot to like, I was left with feelings that were much more mixed than I’d hoped.

The plot is an exciting one. It begins shortly after twenty-two-year-old Olivia marries businessman Alistair Sheldon and leaves England to live with him in Egypt, the country where she spent her own early childhood. It’s not long before she becomes aware of the true nature of her cruel, abusive husband, but she is unwilling to admit to anyone just how unhappy her marriage is and devotes herself instead to settling into her new home in Alexandria and to getting to know her sister Clara, with whom she has just been reacquainted after many years.

When Clara disappears on a trip into the city – seemingly abducted from a busy street – Olivia is devastated. This is the second time she has lost her sister and she is determined to do everything she can to rescue her. As she searches for clues to explain Clara’s disappearance, however, she becomes convinced that her own husband, Alistair, may have had something to do with it. It’s a terrible situation to be in and even the one bright spot in Olivia’s life – her relationship with Edward Bertram, Alistair’s lodger – is just another additional complication. As the story unfolds, there is plenty of the “love and betrayal and mystery” promised by the blurb; all the ingredients for a great novel, so I was disappointed that, for me, they didn’t quite come together to form a successful whole.

My biggest problem with the book was the beginning. I found the opening chapters confusing and muddled. A lot of characters seemed to be introduced all at once – and had such involved and eventful backstories that I wondered if this was actually a sequel and if the early lives of Olivia and Clara had already been covered in a previous book (it isn’t and they hadn’t). Things did settle down after a while, but I still felt that some aspects of the plot were never fully explained or resolved.

Although I came to like and care about the two main characters, Olivia and Edward, and wanted them to find some happiness together, I thought the novel’s villains were just too evil to be true. Alistair had no nuances to his character and no redeeming qualities at all, while Olivia and Clara’s grandmother Mildred, a bitter, spiteful woman, had a hatred for her granddaughters which seemed out of proportion to the explanation that was given. There were some interesting characters amongst the Egyptians, though, particularly Nailah, a young woman whose story is linked with Olivia’s in ways which don’t become clear until the end of the book. The decision to write the novel from the perspectives of both Egyptian and British characters provided an opportunity to compare lifestyles and attitudes and to see things from more than one angle.

I didn’t feel that I learned much about the history of the period but, to be fair, it wasn’t really that sort of book. I think it will have more appeal to readers who enjoy romantic suspense rather than those who are looking for a more detailed work of historical fiction – personally I enjoy both, so despite my problems with Beneath a Burning Sky I still liked it enough to keep reading to the end, curious to see what had happened to Clara and whether Olivia and Edward could find a way to be together.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is Book 7/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Strangers in Company by Jane Aiken Hodge

strangers-in-company Published in 1973, Strangers in Company reminds me of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, or maybe M.M. Kaye’s Death In… series. It is set in Greece and follows the story of Marian Frenche, who is looking for a new job after finding herself at a loose end when her children move away to live with her ex-husband. Marian finds work with an agency who arrange for her to accompany a troubled young woman called Stella Marten on a coach tour of the major Greek archaeological sites. She is given very little information about Stella and her background, apart from a warning that she should be left on her own as little as possible, but after only a few hours in Stella’s company, Marian finds her to be rude, angry and irritable. It’s going to be a difficult trip!

As they set off on their tour, Marian’s time is divided between dealing with Stella’s moods, seeing the sights of Greece and getting to know the other people on the bus. Their fellow passengers include several young schoolteachers, a classics professor, an oddly-matched honeymoon couple and a handsome Greek tour guide. On the surface, they’re just a group of people hoping to enjoy a holiday in the sun and possibly learn something new along the way, but when accidents begin to befall members of the party – too many to be a coincidence – Marian is forced to accept that there could be someone on the tour who is not as innocent as he or she appears. Worse still, it seems that Marian herself could be the next target…

My first introduction to the work of Jane Aiken Hodge came a few years ago when I read and enjoyed Watch the Wall, My Darling, a gothic novel set in 19th century Sussex. Strangers in Company feels very different, having a contemporary setting, but I enjoyed this one even more. I loved the descriptions of Greece and its ancient historical sites, and with the benefit of Google to find pictures of the less famous places the characters visit, I almost felt as though I’d been on the tour myself! I did become very aware of my limited knowledge of more recent Greek history, particularly the period following the civil war of the 1940s, but although I wished I’d read up on this before starting the book, it wasn’t really a problem at all.

I’ve said that this book felt similar to a Mary Stewart novel (some of hers have a Greek setting too) and I think I was right to make that comparison because halfway through the book there’s a scene where Marian spends an afternoon relaxing with a copy of Stewart’s My Brother Michael! I don’t think Jane Aiken Hodge’s writing is as good as Stewart’s, however, and the characters are not as likeable or as well drawn (I found it hard to tell some of the members of the tour group apart). I was also slightly disappointed with the final few chapters of the book – I felt that, as the mystery began to unfold and revelations were made, the plot became very far-fetched and difficult to believe. Otherwise, though, I thought this was a great read!

I have another of Jane Aiken Hodge’s novels, Red Sky at Night, on my shelf still to be read. Has anyone read that one – or any of her others?

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

airs-above-the-ground This month, one of my favourite authors, Mary Stewart, would have been 100 years old and to mark the occasion I decided it was time to pick up one of the few remaining books of hers that I still hadn’t read. I chose Airs Above the Ground, a suspense novel set in Austria which was first published in 1965 – and it was a great choice because I loved it!

At the beginning of the novel, our heroine, Vanessa March, is angry and disappointed because her husband, Lewis, has insisted on going to Stockholm on a business trip just when they had been due to leave for a summer holiday in Italy. Left behind in London, Vanessa meets a friend, Carmel Lacy, for tea and is shocked when Carmel mentions that she has just seen Lewis in a newsreel about a circus fire in Austria. Convinced that there must have been some mistake, Vanessa goes to watch the news footage herself and discovers that it’s true – not only is Lewis in Austria when he’s supposed to be in Sweden, he has also been caught on film with his arm around a pretty young girl.

Conveniently, Carmel’s teenage son, Timothy, is hoping to go to Vienna to visit his father and Carmel is looking for someone to act as a chaperone. Determined to catch up with Lewis and find out what’s going on, Vanessa agrees to accompany him. On arriving in Austria, however, Tim admits that he hasn’t been completely honest about his relationship with his father and instead he ends up staying with Vanessa as she searches for Lewis. They are an unlikely pair – at seventeen, Tim doesn’t really need a chaperone, especially not one who is only twenty-four herself – but a friendship quickly forms and together the two become caught up in a mystery involving a travelling circus, a mysterious Englishman and an old piebald horse.

Airs Above the Ground is a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed at all. I found so many things to enjoy, first and foremost the beautifully written descriptions of the Austrian countryside, the mountains, the villages and the fictional castle of Schloss Zechstein which becomes the focus of the action for the second half of the story:

And, perched on the outermost edge of the crag, like something straight out of the fairy books of one’s childhood, was the Schloss Zechstein, a miniature castle, but a real romantic castle for all that, a place of pinnacles and turrets and curtain walls, of narrow windows and battlements and coloured shields painted on the stone. There was even a bridge; not a drawbridge, but a narrow stone bridge arching out of the forest to the castle gate, where some small torrent broke the rock-ridge and sent a thin rope of white water smoking down below the walls.

Many of Mary Stewart’s novels involve the heroine forming a bond with a lonely or neglected young boy, and while Timothy is too old to be considered a child, it was still good to watch the relationship between them develop. It’s a relationship based entirely on trust, friendship and mutual liking, with no hints of any romantic attraction at all. Of course, unlike most Stewart heroines, Vanessa is already married before the novel even begins and this does give her character a slightly different feel. Like the others, she’s a strong, intelligent and resourceful woman but she’s clearly in awe of Lewis, and although I did enjoy her interactions with her husband, it seemed that whenever he was around she tended to place too much reliance in him and lost some of that strength and resourcefulness.

I also loved Old Piebald, the horse whose master died in the circus fire and whose injured leg Vanessa treats using her veterinary skills. The scene at the end of Chapter 9 where he is grazing in a meadow with circus music playing in the distance has to be one of my favourite moments in all of Mary Stewart’s novels! Horses play an important role in the story – Tim’s real reason for coming to Austria is to get a job with Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School and it was nice to have an opportunity to learn more about the school and its beautiful Lipizzaner stallions. The novel takes its title from the movements performed by these horses, known as the ‘airs above the ground’.

As well as all of the other things I’ve mentioned, there’s also plenty of drama, including a desperate race around the castle battlements, a car chase and a scene involving a mountain railway train. Airs Above the Ground hasn’t become one of my absolute favourite Stewart novels, but it’s definitely in my top five or six (I’ve read eleven of her suspense novels so far, plus three of her Arthurian novels). Have you read this one? And have you done anything to celebrate Mary Stewart’s centenary?

Season of Storms by Susanna Kearsley

Season of Storms Happy New Year! I had considered posting about my reading plans for 2015 today but, to be honest, I don’t really have any. I know I want to do some re-reading this year, as that’s something I’ve been neglecting, but apart from that I don’t have any specific goals in mind. I want to keep things stress-free and just read the books that I really want to read without worrying about challenges and targets. I do still have some December reads to tell you about, so I thought I would get on with writing about those instead…starting with Susanna Kearsley’s 2001 novel, Season of Storms.

Our narrator, Celia Sands, is a twenty-two-year-old actress who has been offered the lead role in a play being staged at an outdoor theatre in the grounds of Il Piacere, an Italian villa. The play – Il Prezzo – was written in the 1920s by the playwright Galeazzo D’Ascanio for his lover, another actress also called Celia Sands. The night before the play was due to have its first performance, the first Celia disappeared and was never seen again.

Now, decades later, the second Celia Sands (no relation to the first despite being named after her) has been invited by D’Ascanio’s grandson, Alessandro, to star in a renewed version of the play. Arriving at Il Piacere, she meets the other people involved with the play and soon becomes aware of tensions within the group; it seems to Celia that everyone has a secret to hide. As the preparations continue and rehearsals begin, strange things start to happen – a servant disappears without trace, a man is found dead, and Celia suspects that her room may be haunted – and the mysteries of the past become entwined with the mysteries of the present.

Season of Storms is the seventh Susanna Kearsley book I’ve read and the first one I’ve been slightly disappointed by. I think part of the problem was that the pace was very slow at the beginning and the story took a very long time to really get started; I think the book could probably have been a lot shorter without losing any essential plot points. By the time the various threads of the novel began to come together in the second half of the book I was struggling to stay interested.

Unlike some of Kearsley’s other books, this one is set almost entirely in the present with only a few flashbacks in which we are given some glimpses of Galeazzo D’Ascanio and the first Celia Sands. The connections between the past and present storylines weren’t strong enough and I felt that the historical one wasn’t resolved properly; I would have liked more focus on solving the mystery of the first Celia’s disappearance and on the supernatural aspects of the novel, which never really came to anything. I was also disappointed by the romantic side of the story – there was no real spark between Celia and her eventual romantic interest and he was not one of my favourite Kearsley heroes.

On a more positive note, Kearsley’s novels always have wonderful settings and this one is no exception! Il Piacere, the playwright’s villa, is on Lake Garda, somewhere I have never been but have always wanted to visit. The descriptions of the estate and the surrounding area are beautiful. Before arriving at Il Piacere, Celia spends some time in Venice, which is somewhere I have visited and I loved watching her explore St Mark’s Square and the Basilica, the canals and the bridges.

There were other things that I liked – the little theatrical touches such as dividing the story into Acts and Scenes and starting the chapters with quotes from plays; and Celia’s relationship with Bryan and Rupert, the gay couple who raised her when her glamorous actress mother neglected her – but there were too many negative points for me to really be able to say that I enjoyed this book.

Not a favourite, then, but I’m pleased I still have two more unread Susanna Kearsley novels to read – and a new one, A Desperate Fortune, to look forward to in 2015.

Named of the Dragon by Susanna Kearsley

Named of the Dragon I love Susanna Kearsley’s books. I always know what to expect from them: a beautiful setting, some romance, some history, a touch of mystery and an element of the supernatural. Named of the Dragon, one of her earlier novels from 1998, is no exception.

Our narrator is Lyn Ravenshaw, a literary agent from London, who has been suffering from nightmares since being widowed and losing her baby son several years earlier. When one of her clients, Bridget Cooper, a children’s author, invites her to her boyfriend’s home in Wales for the Christmas holidays, Lyn accepts. She’s intrigued by the thought of meeting Bridget’s boyfriend, the author James Swift, and hopes she’ll be able to convince him to sign for her agency.

In Wales, Lyn and Bridget look forward to celebrating a traditional Christmas with James and his brother, Christopher, but Lyn’s holiday is disrupted by vivid and disturbing dreams in which a mysterious woman dressed in blue begs her to take care of her son. The Swifts’ neighbour, Elen, another young widow with a baby boy, is also having nightmares and Lyn soon becomes aware of a connection between herself, Elen and the woman in blue. With the help of the reclusive Welsh playwright, Gareth Gwyn Morgan, Lyn delves into local myths and legends in an attempt to make sense of what is happening.

Although I wasn’t really ready for a Christmas novel just yet (it’s only September!) I did love the Welsh setting. James and Christopher live in a farmhouse in Angle, Pembrokeshire and Kearsley describes the house and the surrounding area beautifully. I also enjoyed the descriptions of Pembroke Castle, where Lyn spends an interesting afternoon. I find that being able to see pictures of where a book is set really adds something to the reading experience and photographs of the locations mentioned in the book can be found on Susanna Kearsley’s website.

I really liked Lyn – Kearsley is very good at creating narrators who are easy to like and identify with, without seeming too good to be true – and there’s an interesting assortment of supporting characters too. Even Gareth’s dog, Chance, has a personality of his own. Bridget was a bit overwhelming at first – she’s the sort of person I would find annoying in real life and find annoying in fiction too – but I did warm to her after a while. I loved the hero of the novel, though I won’t tell you who he is (but if you know your poetry and your Arthurian legends, the fact that Lyn’s full name is Lynette might give you a clue). I just wished his romance with Lyn hadn’t been quite so subtle and that we could have seen them together more often.

There were lots of poems, myths, legends and historical facts worked into the novel, with literary quotes and references introducing each chapter. I was pleased to see that the story of Merlin and King Vortigern was included, having just read The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart! It’s always fun to come across connections in your reading like that, isn’t it? The paranormal aspect of the story, though, didn’t seem to have any real purpose and didn’t resolve itself very satisfactorily. For that reason, this is not a favourite Kearsley novel and doesn’t really compare with her later ones such as The Firebird or The Rose Garden.

I have another of Kearsley’s books, Season of Storms, waiting to be read and am looking forward to it!

Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart

Madam Will You Talk When I heard the sad news of Mary Stewart’s death recently I wanted to read one of her books as a tribute. There are still quite a few that I haven’t read and I decided on this one, her debut novel from 1955. It was a great choice because I loved it.

The novel is narrated by Charity Selborne, a young widow on holiday in the south of France with her best friend, Louise, an art teacher. Settling into their hotel, they get to know the other guests, including David, a thirteen-year-old boy from England, and his beautiful French stepmother. When Charity hears that David’s father, Richard Byron, has recently been acquitted of murder and could be in France at this moment searching for his son, she grows worried for the boy’s safety…but her efforts to protect David mean that she herself becomes Richard’s next target.

There’s a lot more to the story than that, but I really don’t want to say much more about it because this is one of Mary Stewart’s most exciting and suspenseful novels and I would like everyone to be as enthralled by the twists and turns of the plot as I was. All I will say is that this book contains one of my favourite sequences in all of the Stewart novels I’ve read – a thrilling car chase in which Charity is pursued across the French countryside (in a chapter appropriately titled Exit, pursued by a Bear – another thing I love about Mary Stewart is the way she works so many literary and mythological references into her writing).

This book is very dated now and definitely feels like one that was written in the 1950s, but I think that just adds to its charm. There are also lots of stunning descriptions of Avignon, Nîmes, Marseilles and all the other places Charity’s adventures take her to (I was pleased to see that her visit to Marseilles included a trip to the Chateau d’If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo). I particularly loved this description of Charity watching the sun rise above the remote village of Les Baux:

“How long I sat out there, in a coign of carved stone and rough rock, I do not know. Long enough, I suppose, for my vigil did at length bring in the dawn. I saw the first light, forerunning the sun, gather in a cup of the eastern cloud, gather and grow and brim, till at last it spilled like milk over the golden lip, to smear the dark face of heaven from end to end. From east to north, and back to south again, the clouds slackened, the stars, trembling on the verge of extinction, guttered in the dawn wind and the gates of day were ready to open at the trumpet…”

Since discovering Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels three years ago I have been hoping to find another one to match the brilliance of the first one I read, Nine Coaches Waiting. Now that I’ve read eight more of her books, I think Nine Coaches will always be my favourite, but Madam, Will You Talk? has come very close!

I think Anbolyn is hosting another Mary Stewart Reading Week in September, so whether you’re already a Stewart fan or whether you have yet to try any of her books, I hope you’ll consider joining in. I have Wildfire at Midnight, Thunder on the Right, My Brother Michael and Airs Above the Ground still to read, but maybe it’s time I tried her Merlin series which I’ve heard so much about. What do you think?

Watch the Wall, My Darling by Jane Aiken Hodge

Watch the Wall My Darling - Jane Aiken Hodge I had never heard of Watch the Wall, My Darling until it started appearing in my recommendations on Goodreads, and with such an intriguing title I knew it was a book I would have to consider reading eventually!

First published in 1966, Watch the Wall, My Darling is a gothic romantic suspense novel set on the south-east coast of England during the Napoleonic Wars. As the story begins, Christina Tretton, a young American woman whose father has recently died, is returning to her family’s ancestral home, Tretteign Grange. After encountering a gang of smugglers on the journey, Christina arrives at the Grange – also known as the Dark House – and is met by her Aunt Verity, her invalid grandfather and her handsome cousin, Ross.

Settling into her new home, Christina quickly takes control of the management of the house and the servants. Impressed with his granddaughter, old Mr Tretteign decides to change his will and leave the Grange to Christina – on the condition that she must marry either Ross or her other cousin, Richard. Christina insists that she has no intention of marrying either of them, but her two cousins, who each have their own reasons for wanting the Grange, have other ideas. Despite herself, she finds herself drawn to Ross, but soon discovers that he is involved in something very dangerous – and with England expecting a French invasion at any moment, the lives of everyone at the Dark House could be at risk.

I enjoyed this book – it was a fun, undemanding read with plenty of adventure and intrigue and a touch of romance. I kept being reminded of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, Georgette Heyer’s Cousin Kate and Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting, though this is not as well written or memorable as any of those, in my opinion. The historical background didn’t feel particularly strong and Christina felt more like a woman of the 1960s than the 1800s, while I didn’t find Ross quite as fascinating and attractive as she did. The introduction of two new characters towards the end of the book didn’t really add anything to the story either. Still, with smugglers, soldiers and spies, a crumbling abbey believed to be haunted, family secrets and an inheritance to be decided, there was more than enough to keep me happy!

And if you’re wondering, the title comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling called A Smuggler’s Song:

“Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark
Brandy for the parson,
‘Baccy for the clerk;
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by!”