The Butterfly Picnic by Joan Aiken

Although Joan Aiken is best known for her children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, she also wrote lots of books for adults. I read one of them, Castle Barebane, last year and enjoyed it so much I knew I would have to read more of them. Unlike Castle Barebane, which was a Gothic historical novel set in Scotland, The Butterfly Picnic, first published in 1972, is contemporary and has much more in common with the suspense novels of Mary Stewart. The characters even reference Stewart’s My Brother Michael once or twice!

The Butterfly Picnic is narrated by Georgia Marsh, a Greek-Chinese-Russian-French orphan with six older brothers, all of them scientists. Georgia has been summoned to the beautiful Greek island of Dendros by her cousin Sweden, another scientist. With no idea why Sweden wants to meet her so desperately, she makes her way to her cousin’s boat which has just sailed into the harbour – and is just in time to witness Sweden’s murder. Unfortunately, Georgia doesn’t see the killer’s face and when she reports the incident to the local police they show very little interest in catching him. In fact, they seem to think Georgia has imagined the whole thing and insist on sending her off on the next plane home. Luckily, the plane is promptly hijacked by Palestinian liberators disguised as priests and Georgia persuades them to return her to the island so she can continue to investigate Sweden’s death.

At this point I was beginning to wonder what on earth I was reading. The plot seemed too ridiculous for words and quickly became even more bizarre…

The plane lands Georgia on the other side of the island where she finds herself accepting a teaching job at a very unusual school inside a castle belonging to a millionaire described as ‘the wickedest man on the island’. However, it seems that someone is determined to prevent Georgia from discovering the truth, and she suffers a series of mishaps including being locked inside a kiln and falling through a trapdoor into an oubliette. While lost in a maze of underground tunnels, Georgia asks herself what Esther Summerson in Dickens’ Bleak House would do: Esther would have bustled up and down the passages doing a great many household errands and embroidering half a dozen yards of ornamental work and jingling her bunch of keys.

The Butterfly Picnic is fun to read and quite a page-turner, but definitely shouldn’t be taken too seriously! As I mentioned above, there are some similarities with Mary Stewart’s novels (the Greek setting, the brave and capable young heroine), while the scientist storyline also reminded me of Agatha Christie’s Destination Unknown, but this is clearly intended to be a parody of those genres of books. As long as you go into it expecting a book that’s more of a comedy rather than a conventional thriller or suspense novel, you’ll probably find it entertaining.

Although I can’t really say that I loved this book as the plot was just a bit too silly, I will continue to try more of Joan Aiken’s novels. The next one I have on my TBR is The Embroidered Sunset and I’m curious to see what it’s like. One final note – be aware that the US title of this book is A Cluster Of Separate Sparks. I wouldn’t want anyone to buy the same book twice!

Book #3 read for R.I.P. XVII

Castle Barebane by Joan Aiken – #1976Club

Since reading some of Jane Aiken Hodge’s books, I’ve been interested in trying something by her sister and fellow author, Joan Aiken. Maybe it would have been more sensible to start with the classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, for which she’s most famous, but her adult novels appealed to me more and when I saw that Castle Barebane was published in 1976, I decided to read it for this week’s 1976 Club hosted by Karen and Simon. I loved it, so it turned out to be a perfect choice!

The novel is set towards the end of the 19th century and opens with Val Montgomery, a New York journalist, at a party to celebrate her engagement to Benet Allerton. The party is not an enjoyable experience for Val – she feels awkward and out of place around Benet’s wealthy, fashionable relatives and can sense their disapproval of her clothes, her family and the fact that she works for a living. When she discovers that she will be expected to give up her career once she becomes Benet’s wife, she begins to have second thoughts about the marriage.

As luck would have it, Val returns home from the party later that night to find that her half-brother Nils has just arrived from England and when she tells him that she is having doubts about Benet, he persuades her to come and stay with him in London for a while to give herself time to think. However, the next day Nils disappears, leaving a note saying he has been called back to England urgently. Val follows on another ship a few days later, but by the time she reaches London, she discovers that her brother’s house has been abandoned, there’s no sign of Nils or his Scottish wife Kirstie, and their two young children are staying with a cruel and negligent servant. Desperate to know what has happened – and wanting to find someone more suitable to care for little Pieter and Jannie before she goes home to America – Val takes the children and boards a train for Scotland and Kirstie’s old family estate.

The rest of the novel is set at Ardnacarrig, nicknamed Castle Barebane because of its derelict, neglected state. This is where the gothic elements of the story emerge, with descriptions of underground passages, dangerous rocks and treacherous quicksand and tales of at least two resident ghosts who haunt the upper floors of the house at night. Val, who is too practical to believe in ghosts, suspects that if the house is haunted at all, it is haunted by the misery and unhappiness of the people who have lived there. As we – and Val – wait for the truth behind Nils’ and Kirstie’s disappearances to be revealed, the poignant stories of other characters unfold: the elderly housekeeper Elspie and her lost lover Mungo; local doctor David Ramsay and his dying mother; and six-year-old Pieter and his little sister Jannie, who is not like other children.

It took me a while to get into this book; it was very slow at the beginning and I felt that more time was spent on Benet and his family than was necessary, considering that they don’t really feature in the story after the first few chapters. Once Val arrived in London to find her brother missing, though, it became much more compelling. Val is a great character; although I didn’t find her particularly likeable at first – and I don’t think she was intended to be – I admired her dedication to her work and desire for independence when it would have been easier to just marry Benet and conform to society’s expectations. After she breaks free from Benet it’s fascinating to watch her grow and flourish as a character while doing all she can to help the people around her, even when it seems that they don’t really want to be helped. There’s also a new romance for Val, which I liked, but we didn’t see enough of her love interest for me to feel fully invested in their relationship.

Most of the action in the book is packed into the final few chapters; there’s definitely a problem with the pacing and also a bit of needless violence which I wasn’t expecting and felt that the story would have worked just as well without. But despite the novel’s many flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it – both the domestic parts and the gothic adventure parts. The atmosphere is wonderful, there’s a suitably sinister villain and I loved the remote setting (and was impressed by the Scottish dialect which seemed quite accurate, although I’m not an expert). I’m certainly planning to read more of Joan Aiken’s books and am hoping they’re all as good as this one!


I’m also counting this book towards the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the R.I.P. XVI event!


1976 books previously read and reviewed on my blog:

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks
Some Touch of Pity by Rhoda Edwards
The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

When I first heard about Daisy Jones & The Six, I dismissed it as not for me. The subject – a fictional 1970s rock band – didn’t appeal to me and it sounded as though the book was written in the sort of experimental style I usually dislike. Then I started to see some very positive reviews from people who often have similar taste in books to me, so when I came across it at the library just before Christmas, I decided to give it a try after all – and am very glad that I did.

The best way to describe Daisy Jones & The Six is like this: Imagine someone has carried out hours of interviews with the members of a rock band and then pieced them all together – a few lines from one member, followed by a short quote from another and then a brief recollection by a third – to form a cohesive narrative telling the complete story of that band, from their early days to their rise to fame and subsequent break-up. The overall effect is like watching a television documentary; it’s a brave and imaginative way to write a novel and could probably have gone badly wrong, but I’m pleased to say that Taylor Jenkins Reid gets it exactly right. In fact, I could easily have believed that Daisy Jones & The Six really existed and that this book really was a documentary transcribed onto the page.

There’s not a lot I can say about the plot of the novel, if you can really call it a ‘plot’. Taylor Jenkins Reid has said that she loosely based Daisy Jones & The Six on Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, as well as other bands such as The Eagles, so you probably know the sort of things you can expect: rivalries between band members; drink, drugs and wild parties; the stories behind song lyrics; lots of tours and rehearsals and recording sessions. The characters are brought to life both through their own words and through the observations of others, and while some of the band members are very forgettable, a few are much more strongly drawn.

Daisy Jones herself is a bit of a mystery; she’s eccentric, quirky, and a real individual who does as she pleases and doesn’t care what people think of her. She comes across as selfish and reckless, but also tragic and vulnerable, and because she spends so much of the book under the influence of drugs, I felt that I never truly knew or understood the real Daisy Jones. Daisy’s relationship with Billy Dunne, the lead singer of The Six with whom she writes some of the band’s biggest hits, forms an important part of the novel. Billy faces his own problems with addiction early in his career, but unlike Daisy he doesn’t face them alone – he is sustained by the love of the strong, supportive and endlessly patient Camila, whom he meets near the beginning of the book and who ended up being one of my favourite characters.

I also liked Karen Karen, the keyboardist with the Six and, until the arrival of Daisy, the only woman in the band, but the other members, as I’ve said, are much less memorable to the point where I kept confusing Eddie, Pete and Warren and couldn’t tell you which instruments they played. Thinking about it, that was probably the point: most well-known bands do have one or two members who get all the attention while others are kept in the background. This is clearly a source of resentment for some of the lesser members of The Six and, when added to Daisy’s drug problems and the tensions between Karen and Billy’s brother, lead guitarist Graham, the break-up of the band seemed inevitable. However, I had been given the impression from the book’s blurb – which states that “no one knows the reason behind the group’s split on the night of their final concert at Chicago Stadium on July 12, 1979 . . . until now” – that something dramatic was going to happen to bring things to a head and I was disappointed that the eventual reason was much less shocking.

There are one or two twists near the end which I liked, especially as one of them made me think differently about everything that had come before. Really, though, it’s not the story that I will remember about this book and probably not the characters either – it’s the overall atmosphere of the book, the documentary style, the recreation of the 1970s music scene and the effort the author has gone to in order to make Daisy Jones & The Six feel like a real band, right down to including a collection of their song lyrics at the end of the book. I didn’t love this book quite as much as most other people seem to have done, but I’m still glad I decided to take a chance on something different from my usual reads as I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to!

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym #1977Club

This is my second choice for this week’s 1977 Club (hosted by Simon and Karen) and the third book I’ve read by Barbara Pym. Having so far read only Excellent Women and Less Than Angels, I was surprised by how different Quartet in Autumn is. It’s a much darker, sadder, more poignant novel and, although I did like it, I found it a little bit depressing.

The ‘quartet’ are two women and two men – Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman – who work together in the same office in 1970s London. They are four very different people with different personalities, but they have two things in common: they are all in their sixties and they all live alone. Although Pym never specifies exactly what their jobs involve, it is implied that the four of them have been sharing an office for several years and have an understanding of each other’s personal circumstances and living arrangements. Despite this, and despite their loneliness, they never do anything together outside of working hours – they eat lunch separately and then go their separate ways again at the end of the day.

We learn very little about Norman, except that people consider him an ‘odd little man’ and that his social life consists solely of dentist appointments and occasional visits to see his brother-in-law, whom he dislikes. Edwin, a widower, is sometimes invited to stay with his married daughter and grandchildren, but otherwise tries to keep himself busy by taking part in as many church activities as possible. The two men seem to play slightly smaller roles in the novel, at least until halfway through when the women retire (not to be replaced) and the quartet is reduced to a duo.

Letty has always planned to move to the countryside with her friend Marjorie after her retirement, but when the unthinkable happens and Marjorie gets engaged, she is left facing a future in an old people’s home instead. But it’s Marcia who is the most tragic character – Marcia who has had surgery for breast cancer and looks forward to her trips to the hospital as ‘holiday treats’, who has developed an obsession with hoarding empty milk bottles in the garden and who attracts the unwelcome attention of a concerned social worker.

A book about four lonely people doing meaningless, unappreciated jobs and looking for ways to fill boring, empty lives does not make the most uplifting of reads, but Pym still manages to sprinkle some humour into the story and to leave us with the sense that there is some hope for our characters after all. Letty, at least, seems to want things to change and to be willing to take the first steps towards bringing about those changes.

Despite the sad, melancholic feel of the book, I think it is my favourite so far by Barbara Pym. Her observations are both witty and sensitive and I found myself really caring about Letty, Norman, Marcia and Edwin. Another good choice for 1977 Club and now I’m looking forward to reading Jane and Prudence, the other Pym novel I have on my shelf.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

The Children of Dynmouth I always believe in giving an author a second chance, so after a failed attempt at reading William Trevor’s Love and Summer a few years ago, I have still been interested in trying more of his work. As March is Reading Ireland Month (hosted by Cathy and Niall) and Trevor is an Irish author, this seemed a good time to give another of his books a try.

Published in 1976, The Children of Dynmouth is set in a typical English seaside town full of ordinary people leading ordinary lives – at least on the surface. Fifteen-year-old Timothy Gedge, who wanders the streets of Dynmouth watching and listening, knows what is really going on behind closed doors and inside people’s heads…and he’s not afraid to use that information to his own advantage. As family scandals, hidden passions and secret affairs are brought to light, the adults and children of Dynmouth begin to wonder what Timothy’s motives really are.

Timothy Gedge is a sinister creation, at the heart of all the tension in Dynmouth, although it’s never quite clear whether or not he is fully aware of the trouble he is causing and the inappropriateness of his actions. The first real indication that something is badly wrong comes when we learn that he is planning to enter the annual Spot the Talent contest with a gruesome ‘comedy act’ which no decent person could possibly find funny. When several obstacles are placed in the way of his act – the lack of a curtain for the stage, for example, and the need for a man’s suit and a wedding dress – Timothy goes to great lengths to get what he wants, regardless of who gets hurt in the process.

With no father in his life and a mother who neglects him, Timothy has been left to fend for himself and has grown up to be a lonely, awkward teenager facing the usual fate of Dynmouth’s young men: a lifetime spent working in the town’s sandpaper factory. The people of Dynmouth can’t get away from him as he tries to connect with them in any way he can; he is everywhere they turn, listening to private conversations, staring through windows, inviting himself into their homes, asking questions, hiding in the shadows and lurking in the background at funerals. Nobody likes him and nobody wants him there, but as a representation of all that is wrong with society, he can be seen as everybody’s responsibility and everybody’s problem.

Timothy is an unsettling character – and this is an unsettling novel. It’s a short book at under 200 pages, but long enough for the author to build up a complete portrait of life in a small community in 1970s England, to introduce us to the people who live there, and to add undercurrents of danger and foreboding, so that by the end of the novel we go away with a very different impression of Dynmouth than we had at the beginning.

The Children of Dynmouth is a disturbing but thought-provoking book and one which left me with a lot to think about after I turned the final page. I would like to read more by William Trevor, so your recommendations are welcome. I’m prepared to try Love and Summer again too, as I think I was probably just in the wrong mood for it the first time.

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop

The Sunrise This is Victoria Hislop’s fourth novel but the first one I’ve read. She has previously written about the Greek leper colony on the island of Spinalonga (The Island), the Spanish Civil War (The Return), and the history of the Greek city of Thessaloniki (The Thread), all of which sound interesting to me as I know nothing about any of those subjects! Like the three books I’ve just mentioned, in The Sunrise, Hislop takes a time and place that many people, including myself, will be unfamiliar with and weaves a story around it.

In the summer of 1972, the city of Famagusta in Cyprus is a thriving holiday resort, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Mediterranean. The beach is lined with luxury hotels, the most luxurious and expensive of them all being The Sunrise, which has just opened its doors for the first time. For the hotel’s owner, Savvas Papacosta, these are exciting times; his dream of becoming the most successful hotelier in Famagusta is moving one step closer to reality.

Within two years, everything changes. Unknown to the tourists as they enjoy the sun, sea and sand, a Greek military coup has led to Turkey invading the northern part of the island to protect the Turkish Cypriots. When the army approaches Famagusta, frightened guests evacuate the hotels and people flee their homes, among them Savvas and his glamorous wife, Aphroditi. But as Turkish soldiers surround the abandoned city, two families remain hidden inside their apartments. One family, the Georgious, are Greek Cypriots, and the other, the Özkans, are Turkish Cypriots. We follow the stories of both of these families, as well as the Papacostas, and see how each character copes with what has happened to their city.

I did enjoy The Sunrise but I thought it felt a bit uneven; not much happened in the first half of the book and a lot of time was spent introducing the characters, setting the scene and describing the interior of the new hotel. With hindsight, I can see that maybe this was necessary, so that we could appreciate the extent to which the lives of these characters were disrupted and destroyed by the coming conflict, but I still found myself getting impatient and wanting to get into the story! I loved the second half of the novel, though. The descriptions of the abandoned city – houses with beds still unmade and food still on the tables, waiting in vain for their owners to return – are extremely vivid and there are images from the book that have stayed in my mind several days after finishing it.

I didn’t particularly like any of the characters in the story but I thought they were an interesting selection of people and I could certainly sympathise with the situations in which they found themselves. While there are one or two characters in the novel who are motivated by greed and self-interest, it was good to see people of different backgrounds and political beliefs working together, overcoming their differences and discovering that their ‘enemies’ are human beings just like themselves.

Towards the end of the book there are too many coincidences and things are wrapped up too neatly for my liking, but overall I found The Sunrise a fascinating read. I have never been to Cyprus and as I said at the start of this post, I know very little about its history (apart from the 15th century civil war, which I read about in Dorothy Dunnett’s Race of Scorpions) so I’m pleased to have had an opportunity to learn about Famagusta’s tragic past. What makes the story even more poignant is that the district of Varosha, where The Sunrise is set, remains a ghost town even today, untouched and uninhabited for four decades.

Thanks to Bookbridgr for my copy of The Sunrise.