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?

The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson

The Morning Gift This is not the first Eva Ibbotson novel I’ve read – I have previously read Madensky Square and The Secret Countess, both of which I enjoyed – but I’ve been particularly looking forward to this one as so many Ibbotson readers speak so highly of it.

The novel opens in Vienna and introduces us to Ruth Berger, the twenty-year-old daughter of a professor of Zoology, whose life revolves around music, nature and her cousin Heini, the concert pianist she has always expected to marry. When the Nazis invade Austria in 1938, Ruth and her family are forced to flee but while her parents make it to safety in London, Ruth is left behind due to a problem with her student visa. A friend of her father’s, the British scientist Professor Quinton Somerville, comes to the rescue with the suggestion that Ruth marries him as a way of getting to London. Once Ruth is safely in England, the marriage can be annulled.

Of course, things don’t go exactly as planned and dissolving their marriage of convenience proves to be harder than they expected. Ruth becomes a student at Thameside University and finds herself in Quin’s class where it will be impossible for them to avoid each other as the lawyers have advised. While she and Quin struggle with the growing attraction they feel for each other, another complication arrives in the form of Heini who has made his way to England and expects Ruth to marry him as soon as possible. Will Ruth and Quin’s secret marriage be discovered?

The Morning Gift is a lovely, romantic story; it took me a while to get into it as the beginning was quite slow, but I became completely absorbed in the story somewhere in the middle and although it was really quite predictable, I still didn’t want to stop reading until I’d found out how things would end for Ruth and Quin. But there is more to this book than just the romance; among other things, it also offers insights into what life was like for a family who escaped persecution in Austria just in time and took refuge in London. This aspect of the novel is based on the author’s personal experiences – her own mother had to flee Vienna and Eva joined her at Belsize Park in London, where the Berger family live in the novel.

I also liked the academic setting and all the little scientific references that are dropped into the story as Ruth studies for her Zoology degree. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the field course at Bowmont, Quin’s estate in Northumberland. Ruth takes genuine pleasure in the natural beauty of her surroundings – the waves tumbling against the cliffs, the smell of vanilla drifting from a gorse bush, the sound of a curlew calling – and I loved seeing the Northumberland coast through her eyes.

I liked both Ruth and Quin, but there’s also a good selection of strong secondary characters: the other refugees who meet for tea and cakes in the Willow Tea Rooms; Ruth’s Uncle Mishak who copes with his wife’s death by planting radishes; Quin’s formidable Aunt Frances who will do anything to prevent Bowmont being given to the National Trust; and Ruth’s fellow students at the university, especially Verena Plackett, the closest thing to a villain in this novel. There are many more – too many to mention here – but all of them have something to add to the story.

I did enjoy The Morning Gift but it’s probably my least favourite of the three Ibbotson novels I’ve read so far. There was nothing in particular that I disliked about this book (apart from the slow start); it’s just that I preferred The Secret Countess and Madensky Square. I’m looking forward to continuing to work through the rest of Ibbotson’s novels!

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

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Gretel and the Dark One night in 1899, Benjamin discovers a young woman lying on the ground near Vienna’s mental hospital, naked and bruised, and takes her to the home of his employer, the famous psychoanalyst, Dr Josef Breuer. The girl, whom Dr Breuer names Lilie, insists that she is not human, that she’s just a machine. Her mission, she says, is to destroy a monster. The doctor enlists Benjamin’s help in trying to uncover the truth about his young patient, but both men find themselves increasingly drawn to the mysterious Lilie.

Many years later, in Germany, we meet a spoilt and badly behaved little girl called Krysta. She has recently moved house with her father, another doctor, to be nearer his job working with ‘animal people’ at what Krysta believes is a zoo. Krysta’s father is busy with his work, leaving his daughter to entertain herself by remembering the fairy tales she was told by her old nurse, Greet, and making friends with Daniel, a lonely little boy she discovers eating worms in the grounds of the ‘zoo’. When an unexpected tragedy throws Krysta’s life into turmoil, she learns that Greet’s stories can provide an escape from the horrors that are going on around her.

Well, this is proving to be a very difficult book to write about without giving too much away! Gretel and the Dark is one of those books where it is not immediately obvious what is happening. For a long time I was confused. What was the link between the two storylines? Was Lilie a real person or was she a machine, as she claimed? How did she seem to have so much knowledge of the future? And who was Gretel supposed to be?

I think I spent about 300 of the book’s 350 pages trying to figure out the connection between Krysta and Lilie and coming up with theories, most of which were completely wrong. I only started to guess the truth shortly before it was revealed and when everything began to come together in the final chapters of the book, I discovered that the story I had actually been reading was not quite the one I’d thought I was reading!

Despite the allusions to fairy tales and the fact that some of the main characters are children, this is actually a very, very dark novel. Again, I can’t really discuss any of the issues the book raises because it would be best to know as little as possible before starting to read – though I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to say that the place where Krysta’s father works is not really a zoo at all, but something much more sinister. And the fairy tales Krysta recalls throughout the book are not the light, whimsical kind, but the dark and gruesome ones. Hansel and Gretel is one of her favourites and she enjoys using her imagination to push various enemies into the witch’s oven! Later in the book, when something particularly horrible happens to Krysta, another of the tales Greet told her takes on new meaning.

I liked Eliza Granville’s writing but I didn’t find this an easy book to read because some parts of the story were so disturbing and unpleasant. Although it was not a book I could describe as ‘enjoyable’ it was certainly very clever and unusual…and I can almost guarantee you’ll still be thinking about it long after reaching the final page.

Thanks to Penguin Ireland for the review copy.

Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson

I felt a sudden longing to record…to retain…my everyday life here in Madensky Square. I shall remember my tragedies, my follies and my joys – everyone remembers those. But what of the ordinary things, the little happenings? What of the ‘dailiness’ – who has a care for that?

I think this is the first Eva Ibbotson book I’ve read. I say ‘think’ because it’s possible that I’ve read one or two of her children’s books (Which Witch? sounds very familiar), but this is definitely the first time I’ve read one of her adult or young adult books. Ibbotson is an author I’ve been wanting to try for a long time as so many of the bloggers I follow keep mentioning how much they love her. Madensky Square isn’t one that I’ve heard much about so probably wouldn’t have been the one I would have chosen to start with, but Amazon were offering it as their Kindle Daily Deal a few weeks ago and I couldn’t resist!

The book is set in Austria just a few years before the start of the First World War. Our narrator, Susanna Weber, is a dressmaker with a small but busy shop on Vienna’s Madensky Square. At the beginning of the novel, Susanna tells us that for the next twelve months she is going to keep a journal recording the lives of her friends, her customers and the other inhabitants of Madensky Square. She starts her story in the spring of 1911 and in the pages that follow we meet and get to know the people who populate Susanna’s world.

Being a dressmaker gives Susanna the opportunity to meet a wide range of people from different walks of life. She hears all of their gossip and becomes involved in the various dramas taking place in each of their lives. There’s Frau Schumacher, for example, who already has six daughters and whose husband is hoping for a son to inherit his timber business; how will he react if their next child is another girl? Then there’s Nini, Susanna’s Hungarian assistant, who is an anarchist and needs to decide whether her political beliefs are more important than her chance of love. Others include the Countess von Metz, a proud, sharp-tongued old lady who still loves buying dresses despite living alone and in poverty, the beautiful and very religious Magdalena Winter, and the eccentric Professor Starsky, an expert in Reptile Diseases. There are a large number of characters, but they are all so different and described in so much depth I never had any difficulty remembering who they all were. Some did feel a bit stereotypical (particularly the plain and awkward ‘bluestocking’, Edith Sultzer, and the fat butcher, Herr Huber) but I could overlook that as they were still so well-written and memorable. Even Rip the dog, whose owner sends him out every day with a little purse tied around his neck to buy the newspaper, has a distinct personality of his own!

Susanna herself is a lovely, warm person who others frequently look to for help and advice. However, her own life is no less interesting and complicated than that of any of the other characters I’ve mentioned. She has experienced a lot of sadness and loss in her past, but I don’t want to give too much of her personal story away as it’s only revealed to the reader slowly as the book progresses. Of all the other storylines in Madensky Square, my favourite was the one involving Susanna’s relationship with Sigismund Kraszinsky, a young Polish orphan. Sigi is a talented pianist and his uncle has brought him to Vienna in the hope of furthering his career as a musician, which unfortunately comes at the expense of allowing him to have a normal childhood. The story of how Susanna befriends this lonely, nervous little boy and tries to bring some happiness into his life is one of the most moving of the novel’s many subplots.

I loved reading the descriptions of Madensky Square itself, with its fountain, café and statue of Colonel Madensky, as well as the countryside, the opera houses and all the other places Susanna visits; I especially enjoyed reading about Susanna and Sigi’s trip to the magical Grottenbahn in Linz! I was satisfied with the way the book ended too – it wrapped things up nicely for all the characters we had been following in so much detail and had grown to love and care about over the course of the novel. There are happy endings for some of them, but not for others, which is realistic and more effective than if there had been a fairytale ending for everyone.

I loved this book and I’m hoping that maybe those of you who are Eva Ibbotson fans can tell me which of her books I should try next?

The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons

I love reading fiction set during World War II and The Novel in the Viola is one of the best I’ve read for a while. The story begins in 1938 when we meet nineteen-year-old Elise Landau, a girl from a rich Austrian family (her mother, Anna, is a successful opera singer and her father, Julian, a famous author). Until now, Elise has lead a secure and comfortable life but that’s all about to change because the Landaus are Jews, and with Europe on the brink of war Austria is no longer a safe place to live. And so Elise is sent away from her home in Vienna and travels alone to Tyneford House, a mansion on the south coast of England, where she will work as a maid for Mr Rivers and his son, Kit. Her parents have remained in Austria while they await American visas and they promise to send for Elise as soon as possible – but as the war continues, she begins to wonder if they’ll ever be reunited.

The portrayal of life in an English country house forms a big part of the story, with insights into the class system, social conventions of the time, and the relationships between servant and master. Elise has to get used to working as a parlour maid after spending most of her life having servants of her own. Her background makes it difficult for her to fit in with the other servants at Tyneford but her status as a maid and a Jewish refugee prevents her from being accepted by some of the Rivers’ upper class friends. Elise is a wonderful character and I enjoyed following her as she settled into her new life – I thought Natasha Solomons displayed a real understanding of what it was like to be newly arrived in an unfamiliar country, feeling homesick and struggling with the language and the culture.

There are lots of beautiful, atmospheric descriptions of the Dorset countryside and coast which gave me a true feel of what it was like to live there during the Second World War. The story also looks at the effects the war had on the village of Tyneford and the house itself. The author’s note at the end of the book was very interesting and explained how Tyneford was based on a real place that became a ghost town because of the war.

There are so many other things I could say about this book – there’s the secret of the ‘novel in the viola’ itself, and I haven’t even mentioned yet the romantic storyline which develops as Elise begins to fall in love with someone she meets at Tyneford. But I don’t want to spoil this book for you, so I’ll just say that The Novel in the Viola was a real pleasure to read, a great story with just the right balance of sadness and humour. And I thought the way the book ended was perfect – the only problem was that I had grown to care for Elise and the others so much I didn’t want to leave them behind.

Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

This is the first graphic novel I’ve read. There, I’ve admitted it. I can’t explain why it has taken me so long to read one. It’s not that I think they’re childish or ‘not real literature’ or anything like that; it had just never occurred to me to read them and until I started blogging I didn’t even realise how popular they were. When I did decide I’d like to try one I thought a graphic memoir might be the best to start with and as I’d seen Persepolis reviewed on so many blogs it seemed a good choice. And it was, because I loved it.

This edition is actually two books in one: The Story of a Childhood and The Story of a Return. They can be bought separately but you really need to read the first book before the second.

These two books are the memoirs of Marjane Satrapi. In The Story of a Childhood she tells us what it’s like to be a child growing up in Iran during the 1970s and 80s. Due to the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, Iran becomes an oppressive and often dangerous place to live, particularly as Marjane develops into a rebellious teenager. Her concerned parents eventually decide that the safest option is to send their daughter away to start a new life in Europe.

Before beginning this book, I didn’t know very much at all about Iranian history and politics. I found that seeing things through a child’s eyes was fascinating and informative. Marji is an intelligent, imaginative girl and like all children she’s always curious and full of questions, so for someone who knows very little about Iran, this book offers an opportunity to learn along with Marji.

In the second volume, Marji is living in Austria, struggling to adapt to life in a country with an entirely different culture. This second book is more about the personal problems she faces with relationships, drugs and money and although I had a lot of sympathy for the situation she was in, I didn’t enjoy reading this book as much as the first one. I did find it more interesting towards the end when she finally returns to Iran several years later and finds she has as much trouble fitting back into her old life as she’d had fitting into life in Austria.

Although this was definitely a new experience for me, I was quickly able to forget that I was reading a ‘graphic novel’ and become absorbed in Marjane Satrapi’s story. The simple, stark black and white drawings were perfect and made it easy to understand what was happening. Rather than just illustrating the text, the pictures played an equally important part in telling the story.

I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to. It was a powerful and moving story, with some moments of humour too. So, if you are also new to graphic novels and unsure where to start, I have no hesitation in recommending this one to you!