The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes

This weekend Jessie of Dwell in Possibility has been hosting another Mini Persephone Readathon and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to read The Expendable Man, one of the thrillers published by Persephone and a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. It turned out to be a great choice.

Published in 1963, the novel opens with a young doctor, Hugh Densmore, driving from Los Angeles to a family wedding in Phoenix. On the way, he spots a teenage girl standing alone at the side of the road. Hugh doesn’t usually stop for hitchhikers but this time he finds himself slowing down…

He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift. The car was stopped. He shifted to reverse and began backing up.

Hugh quickly begins to regret this impulsive act of kindness. The girl is rude, ungrateful and, when he questions her about who she is and where she is going, it is clear that she is telling lies. When they arrive in Phoenix, Hugh leaves his hitchhiker at a bus station and doesn’t expect to see her again, but that night the girl tracks him down at his hotel, setting in motion a series of events that could ruin the life and career he has built up so carefully for himself.

There’s really not much more I can say about the plot or the characters. If you think you might want to read this book, it’s best that you know as little as possible before you begin. And I do highly recommend reading it! I was completely gripped from beginning to end; when I first picked it up on Friday and started reading, I didn’t expect to actually finish it before the Readathon was over, but as it happened that wasn’t a problem at all. I couldn’t bear to put the book down until I knew what was going to happen to Hugh.

There’s an element of mystery-solving to the novel, but The Expendable Man is much more than a straightforward crime story. A few chapters into the book, there’s a twist – or maybe revelation is a better word to use – that changed the way I felt about what I had read so far and showed me that I had made an unfair assumption without even being aware that I had made it. It was so cleverly done and provided answers to some of the things I’d been wondering about as I read those earlier chapters.

I also loved the author’s beautifully written descriptions of the landscape, particularly near the beginning when Hugh is driving into Arizona. This is the first book I’ve read by Dorothy B Hughes and I was very impressed with every aspect of it! I would like to read more of her books, so if there’s one you would recommend please let me know.

Rum Affair by Dorothy Dunnett – #1968Club

I am, after all, the only really photogenic coloratura soprano alive. My only problem, just about then, was in staying alive.

It’s been a while since I read my first of Dorothy Dunnett’s Johnson Johnson mysteries and this week’s 1968 Club (hosted by Simon and Karen) seemed the perfect opportunity to read another one. Rum Affair – originally titled Dolly and the Singing Bird and then The Photogenic Soprano – was the first in the series to be published (in 1968 obviously), although Tropical Issue, the other one I’ve read, was the first chronologically.

Dunnett is better known for her historical novels, some of which have recently been reissued, but the seven books in her mystery series have contemporary settings. They are each narrated by a different young woman and all feature the portrait painter Johnson Johnson and his yacht Dolly.

Rum Affair opens with Tina Rossi, a Polish-Italian opera singer, arriving in Scotland where she is due to give two performances at the Edinburgh Festival. During a break in her schedule, she has arranged to meet her lover, Kenneth Holmes, at his friend’s Rose Street flat. However, there’s no sign of Kenneth – just a card with the three handwritten words, “Darling, I’m sorry”. Searching for clues to explain his absence, Tina opens a wardrobe door to reveal the body of a man, a stranger, who has been shot in the chest. When the police unexpectedly arrive, making enquiries about a robbery in the neighbourhood, she quickly makes the decision to conceal what has happened – to try to save her own reputation, she tells us, and Kenneth’s.

Instinct is a marvellous thing, I dare say; but I prefer to use my good sense. You, perhaps, with a strange man lying dead at your feet would have welcomed the police with an exhibition of nervous relief. I, on the other hand, kept my head.

On the same night, Tina’s path crosses for the first time with that of Johnson, who is staying nearby. Tina is immediately intrigued by Johnson, a mysterious man who wears bifocals and introduces himself as “thirty-eight. Painter. London. On holiday.” When Johnson invites her to join him on a yacht race to the Isle of Rum, she is quick to accept. Rum is where Kenneth is currently based, working on a highly sensitive project for his employers, although she doesn’t admit this to Johnson. However, it seems that Johnson has a reason of his own for wanting Tina to sail with him on board Dolly – and it’s not just so that he can paint her portrait!

I won’t go into any more detail regarding the plot because I wouldn’t like to inadvertently give too much away and spoil the mystery – and I don’t want to say much more about Tina Rossi either as I’m finding that part of the fun of reading the Johnson novels is in getting to know the woman who is narrating the story. What I will say is that Tina is very different from Rita Geddes of Tropical Issue and that their narrative voices reflect their different personalities and backgrounds (while I liked Rita immediately, I never connected with Tina at all, but I suppose you can’t like every character in every book). As for Johnson himself, even though I have now read two books in this series, he is still very much an enigma to me. Of course, we only see him through the eyes of the narrators so we only know what they choose to tell us and are reliant on their observations and interpretations of his character, which may not always be correct or true.

I also found the setting interesting; the race in which Johnson and Tina are participating takes them around the west coast of Scotland, visiting several islands of the Inner Hebrides, of which Rum is one.

In the summer night, the Inner Hebrides lay all about us, black on the indigo sea. Above us, the uninterrupted sky stretched, a light, dense ultramarine, its ghostly clouds and small, sharp white stars suspended over the bright winking lights, near and far, of a constellation of lighthouses, and the grey, dimly voyaging waves here below.

I particularly enjoyed the scenes set at Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa!

Although I don’t think these books come close to the brilliance of Dunnett’s Lymond or Niccolò series, or King Hereafter, they are still quite enjoyable in a different way. I am looking forward to reading the rest and meeting the other five narrators.

A French Trio: Mediterranean Summer; Eugenie; A Week in Paris

Coincidentally, three of my recent reads have been set in France, so I thought I would combine my thoughts on them into one French-themed post. It’s a good way for me to get through my review backlog too!

Mediterranean Summer by Jane MacKenzie was a nice surprise; a book I knew nothing about, by an author I’d never come across before, but one that I ended up really enjoying. It tells the story of Laure, a young art student who finds herself caught up in the excitement of the 1968 student demonstrations at her university in Paris. When the rebellion is over, with her future as an artist in doubt due to her involvement in the protests, Laure returns home for the summer to her parents’ house in the Mediterranean village of Vermeilla. Here, in the small Catalan community of her childhood, she is reacquainted with old friends as well as making new ones – and with the help of Robert, a lawyer, she begins to search for a way to rescue her career.

This is a lovely summer read; the descriptions of the fictional Vermeilla and the surrounding area are so beautiful I wished I could go and spend the rest of the summer there myself! There’s an interesting selection of characters to get to know too, mostly very likeable, but with one or two who could be considered villains. As for the historical background, I knew almost nothing about the Paris student protests in the 1960s, so I learned something new there, and I was also interested to read about the Nobel dynamite factory in Paulilles and the shocking lack of regard for the health and safety of the employees. I loved Mediterranean Summer and would be happy to try Jane MacKenzie’s previous novels.

The next book I want to talk about takes us further back in time, to the French Revolution. Published in 1917 (originally titled The Third Estate), Eugenie by Marjorie Bowen introduces us to two sisters, Eugenie and Pélagie Haultpenne. Pélagie, the eldest, is heiress to a fortune and, at the beginning of the book, is engaged to a handsome young nobleman, the Marquis de Sarcey. As soon as the Marquis sees her beautiful sister Eugenie, however, Pélagie is forgotten. Can he find a way to be with Eugenie without giving up his claim to the Haultpenne fortune?

I have read a few of Marjorie Bowen’s other historical novels and have found them to vary widely in style and quality. This is not one of the better ones, but despite the off-putting cover, it’s still an entertaining read. The historical aspect of the story is interesting; it focuses less on the Revolution itself than on the factors leading to it, such as the Estates General and the role of the Comte de Mirabeau. This is a novel that you would read more for the plot than because you wanted to learn some history, though. It reminded me slightly of Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase; it’s fun, as long as you don’t mind lots of melodrama, swooning heroines and an anti-hero who is “a creature expert in every vice, used to every dishonour, useless, arrogant, a parasite on the labour of others!”

Finally, I read A Week in Paris by Rachel Hore, a dual timeline novel. One thread of the story is set in 1961 and follows music student Fay Knox who is in Paris for a week with her orchestra. Fay has grown up knowing very little about her early childhood as her mother refuses to talk about it or to tell her what happened to her father, other than that he was killed during the war. However, when memories start coming back to her, she has reason to believe that the first years of her life may have been spent in France. Over the course of her week in Paris, Fay decides to find out the truth about her past – and is shocked by what she discovers. Meanwhile, she is reacquainted with an old friend, Adam, but could he also be hiding secrets?

The other storyline is written from the perspective of Fay’s mother, Kitty, who falls in love with Gene, an American doctor, during World War II. The two end up trapped in occupied Paris – and their actions during this period will have consequences that live on into the next generation.

I found this an enjoyable novel, after a slow start, though not as good as similar books by other authors such as Lucinda Riley or Susanna Kearsley. The 1940s storyline is much more engaging than the 1960s one, not just because of the drama of the war itself, but also because the romance between Kitty and Gene is more convincing than the one between Fay and Adam (and less reliant on coincidence and chance meetings). I really cared about what happened to the wartime characters and was gripped by the details of life in a city under Nazi occupation, but I wouldn’t have minded if the framing story involving Fay had been left out altogether.

Three very different books, but I found different things to like about all of them!

Thanks to Jane MacKenzie for the copy of Mediterranean Summer; the other two were both taken from the outstanding titles on my NetGalley shelf.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Exposure What a great book! I have to admit, I wasn’t sure about reading it; I thought Helen Dunmore’s previous novel, The Lie, was disappointing, and the descriptions of this one as a Cold War spy novel didn’t sound very appealing to me. I wanted to give Dunmore another chance, though, so I decided it would be worth giving Exposure a try.

The first thing I need to say is that although Exposure certainly is a Cold War spy novel of sorts, it’s also a compelling story of love and betrayal, secrets and lies, as seen through the eyes of a wonderful cast of strong and complex characters. One of them, Simon Callington, is a quiet, unambitious young man who works for the Admiralty in London and who looks forward to coming home to his wife and children at the end of each day. The last thing he wants is to be involved in any controversy, but that is exactly what happens one night in November 1960 when he receives a call for help from his friend and colleague, Giles Holloway.

As a student, Simon had been drawn to Giles because he was older and more sophisticated; now, however, Giles is a rather sad and lonely man with a drink problem, and when he falls down the stairs and ends up in hospital with a broken leg, Simon is the only person he feels he can trust. Just before he fell, Giles was working on a secret file – a file he should never have brought home from work – and he needs Simon to retrieve it from his desk and return it to the office before anyone notices it was missing. Simon agrees, but unknown to him, Giles’s home is being watched.

The decisions Simon makes on that fateful night and in the days which follow will have serious consequences for both Simon himself and for his family – his wife, Lily, and their three children, Paul, Sally and Bridget. It’s Lily, in my opinion, who is the real star of this novel. Having fled to England with her mother as Jewish refugees in the 1930s, she has spent her whole adult life trying to hide her German origins and now, with Simon in trouble, it’s more important than ever that her past is kept a secret. Lily is put under a huge amount of pressure, yet remains strong, resourceful and determined to do whatever it takes to protect her husband and children.

Simon also has a secret which he has been concealing even from Lily and if it is revealed his situation will become even more precarious than it already is. With all three of our main characters – Giles, Simon and Lily – at risk of exposure, the tension and the atmosphere of darkness and danger build and build throughout the story. The writing and structure of the novel are both excellent, dipping into the past where necessary to explore a character’s background, helping us to understand the person they are in the present. Dunmore also includes just enough period detail to set the story firmly in the early 1960s without going into an excessive amount of description.

Some elements of the novel made me think of the plot of E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children (and I’m sure we’re supposed to make the connection) but Exposure is also an exciting and original novel in its own right. I loved it and am so pleased I didn’t let The Lie put me off reading more of Helen Dunmore’s books!

A Glimpse into 1960s Paris – a guest post by Rachel Hore

It’s not often that I have the chance to introduce a guest post here at She Reads Novels, but today I’m pleased to welcome author Rachel Hore to the blog to tell us about researching 1960s Paris for her new novel A Week in Paris which has been published in the UK this week.

Rachel Hore

Rachel Hore

A GLIMPSE INTO 60s PARIS by Rachel Hore

My new novel, A Week in Paris, opens in 1961, when Fay Knox, a young English violinist, visits the city with her orchestra and learns secrets of her family’s wartime past. What was Paris like at that time and how did I go about researching it?

Reading histories of the period gave me the context. Paris, though glamorous, elegant and romantic, a cradle of new ideas in philosophy and high art, was still socially conservative, France as a whole even more so. In 1958, after a period of unstable government and succeeding crises over the war of independence in Algeria, General de Gaulle was recalled as President and a period of strong rule ensued. It wasn’t until the students’ riots and sit-ins of May 1968 that the young and dispossessed really challenged the aging, authoritarian head of government, and change was finally, if painfully slowly, set in motion.

Boutique off Rue de Rivoli

Boutique off Rue de Rivoli (2014)

In other ways, too, the liberal sixties came late to Paris. A glance at the popular music hits of 1961 reveals months of No.1s for traditional French crooners Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour, with a young Johnny Hallyday making an appearance with ‘Kili Watch’ and, bizarrely for January, Richard Anthony singing ‘Itsy Bitsy Petit Bikini’. This picture had not changed much by early 1964 when the Beatles played a series of concerts at the Olympia music hall. An interviewer had to ask, ‘What is Beatlemania?’ and there were no girls screaming and fainting. Jazz is still big in this period. On her arrival in the city, Fay spots a poster about the trumpeter Miles Davis playing the Olympia.

Paris Match March 1961

Paris Match March 1961

Guidebooks for 1961 were immensely helpful for my research. The Dolphin Guide to Paris, written for American tourists, was full of black and white photographs of the period; a student jazz band jamming on the quays of the Left Bank of the Seine and haute couture models wearing the latest boxy coats – like Fay’s. My copy of Paris Match magazine featuring film-maker Jean-Luc Godard’s elegantly sexy wife Anna Karina made its way into my narrative, as did the Gateway Guide’s advice to fashion-hunters on a budget to visit Worth, Dior and Schiaparelli’s ’ cheaper ‘boutiques’ or to satisfy themselves with the big department stores, Printemps and Galeries La Fayette.

A Bout de Souffle

Poster of A Bout de Souffle

Much has been written about French film of the time. Fay’s fellow musician Sandra is excited when her French boyfriend holds out the possibility of meeting Alain Delon, the heart-breaker star of 1960’s Purple Noon. In the same year came A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) by Jean-Luc Godard, which with its bold visual style and innovative use of jump cuts was hailed as an important example of French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). Other practitioners included Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), both released in 1959. Movies, of course, can be a gift to the novelist conducting research as long as one weighs up their veracity.

A rest from sightseeing

A rest from sightseeing

Research can only take the fiction-writer so far. The trick for me was to recognize when to leave it all behind and to enter instead the world of 1961 Paris I’ve imagined – the world Fay sees and in which she lives and loves. When I could hear her voice I knew that it was time to put the books away.

Text and photos ©Rachel Hore 2014 unless stated otherwise.

The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart

The Gabriel Hounds The Gabriel Hounds is set in the 1960s and narrated by twenty-two-year-old Christy Mansel who is on a tour of Syria and Lebanon. After unexpectedly meeting her cousin Charles in a street in Damascus, they decide to visit their eccentric Great-Aunt Harriet who has lived near Beirut for several years. ‘Lady Harriet’, as she now calls herself, became a local celebrity after moving into an old, decaying palace by the Adonis River, dressing as a male Arab and modelling herself on the legendary Lady Hester Stanhope. Now over eighty years old, Harriet lives in seclusion with only her servants and her young English companion, John Lethman.

The cousins travel to the palace separately and Christy is first to arrive. She is not made to feel welcome but after a bizarre conversation with the old woman, she is allowed to spend the night there. It quickly becomes obvious that something is not right and when Charles joins her the next day they find that, in typical Mary Stewart fashion, they have stumbled upon a mystery!

Although Christy is in many ways very similar to Mary Stewart’s other heroines – beautiful, confident, brave and intelligent – I never managed to warm to her, or to her cousin Charles either. As Christy herself tells us at the beginning of the story, she and Charles both have “the ‘spoiled’ quality that we were so quick to recognise in one another; a flippant cleverness that could become waspish; an arrogance that did not spring from any pride of achievement but was, I am afraid, the result of having too much too young.” Luckily, though, the fact that I didn’t like the characters very much didn’t stop me enjoying the story and The Gabriel Hounds has joined Nine Coaches Waiting and The Moonspinners as one of my top three Mary Stewart novels so far.

As well as being an exciting page turner, I also loved the atmosphere and the unusual setting. The novel is very dated, I suppose – it’s hard to imagine young tourists like Christy wandering happily through the streets of Damascus and Beirut on their own today – but remembering that the book was written in the 1960s, they sound like fascinating places to have visited and Mary Stewart’s usual beautiful descriptions abound: the beauty of red anemones, the herds of goats grazing on the riverbanks, the scent of jasmine and roses, the fields of sunflowers grown for their oil.

The descriptions of the palace of Dar Ibrahim – with its labyrinth of dusty tunnels and corridors, wall mosaics, cracked marble floors and quiet courtyards – are wonderfully detailed and vivid, especially the scenes set in the old Seraglio, where Christy is given a room for the night. Then, of course, there’s the sound of Harriet’s saluki hounds howling in the distance as Christy explores the palace. Some parts of the book are quite creepy and there are some surprising plot twists too that made me want to immediately turn back and read previous sections again. The story also has what I’m coming to consider one of Stewart’s trademark dramatic, action-packed endings.

The final aspect of this novel I want to mention is the factual element. Lady Hester Stanhope was a real person and if you don’t know anything about her, I can almost guarantee that after reading this book you’ll be completely intrigued and will want to find out more about her amazing life, as I did. Mary Stewart has attributed a lot of Lady Stanhope’s characteristics and habits to the fictional Lady Harriet, including shaving her head and wearing a turban, and only admitting visitors to her room after dark. I’ve discovered that there’s a recent biography by Kirsten Ellis called Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope. Has anyone read it or is there another one you would recommend?

The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart

The Moonspinners “Sometimes, when you’re deep in the countryside, you meet three girls, walking along the hill tracks in the dusk, spinning. They each have a spindle, and onto these they are spinning their wool, milk-white, like the moonlight. In fact, it is the moonlight, the moon itself…all they have to do is to see that the world gets its hours of darkness, and they do this by spinning the moon down out of the sky.”

With spring still a few weeks away and the weather still cold, damp and miserable, The Moonspinners with its beautifully described Greek island setting was just what I needed!

The story is narrated by Nicola Ferris, who is taking a break from her job at the British Embassy in Athens to spend a few days visiting Crete. She has arranged to meet her cousin, Frances, there but Nicola arrives a day earlier than planned and decides to go exploring on her own. In the mountains above Agios Georgios, the village where they are going to be staying, Nicola stumbles into adventure when she meets a young Englishman, Mark Langley, who has been wounded after witnessing a crime.

Mark is being tended by his Greek friend, Lambis, but his younger brother, Colin, has been kidnapped by the criminal gang and Mark is worried that he might have been murdered. Nicola wants to help but it’s time to go down to the village and meet Frances, so she reluctantly leaves Mark and Lambis in their hiding place. After arriving at her hotel and speaking to the hotel owner and his assistant, Nicola thinks she has discovered who was responsible for Colin’s disappearance, but will she be able to find him before it’s too late?

I love Mary Stewart’s books because they’re fun and easy to read while still being well-written, intelligent novels with exciting plots and atmospheric settings. Her descriptive writing is so impressive in this book; whether she’s describing the colour of the sea, the warmth of the sun, the fishing boats in the bay, the unspoilt countryside or the picturesque sight of windmills with white sails, she always chooses the perfect words and makes everything sound beautiful and idyllic:

“A clump of tamarisk trees stood where the gravel gave way to the flat rock of the foreshore; this, smoothed and fissured by water, burned white in the sun. In every cranny of rock blazed the brilliant pink and crimson sunbursts of ice daisies, and just beside them, the sea moved lazily, silky and dark, its faint bars of light and shadow gently lifting and falling against the hot rock.”

I have never been to Crete but reading the wonderful, evocative way it is depicted in this book made me wish I was there, though as the book was written in the 1960s before the Greek islands became such popular tourist destinations (Nicola and Frances are the only guests at their tiny hotel in Agios Georgios) I’m sure the culture and landscape must have changed a lot since then!

Of the five Mary Stewart novels I have now read, this is one of my favourites so far and might be a good one to start with if you’ve never read any of her books. There’s also a 1964 Disney film version of The Moonspinners with Hayley Mills, though I haven’t seen it and have heard that it’s very different to the book. Has anyone seen it?

The Gabriel Hounds will be the next Mary Stewart book I read – I found it in the library last week and am looking forward to starting it in the next few days.