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

Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop

This was one of several books on my 20 Books of Summer list this year that I didn’t have time to read before the September deadline, but if I’d know how much I was going to love it I would have made it a priority. It turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read this year and probably the most moving.

The novel opens in Greece in 2016 and introduces us to an elderly woman called Themis, whose family have gathered in her Athens apartment to celebrate her birthday. Aware of how little the younger generations know about their country’s history, she decides to share her life story with her two favourite grandchildren, Nikos and Popi. It seems as though almost every book I pick up recently is set in multiple time periods and, to be honest, I’m getting a bit bored with that format, but in this case the framing story only forms the beginning and end of the book – the bulk of the novel is set in the past, which makes it easier to become fully immersed in the story Themis is telling.

And what a fascinating story it is, beginning in the 1930s and taking us through the Axis occupation of Greece during the Second World War, the rise of communism and the Civil War that followed, the political crisis that led to a military junta taking control of the country and then the abolition of the monarchy and establishment of a more democratic society, bringing us right up to the present day. As I probably knew even less about 20th century Greek history than Nikos and Popi at the start of the novel, I found that I was learning a lot from the book, as well as being gripped by the personal stories of Themis and her family.

After their father leaves for America and their mother suffers a nervous breakdown, Themis and her three siblings are raised by their beloved grandmother. As they each grow up to hold different political opinions, a heated discussion takes place every evening when the family sit down around their large mahogany dining table. Themis and her brother Panos want to free Greece from German occupation and later, as their views move further to the left, they both decide to join the Communist army. Meanwhile, her eldest brother Thanasis and sister Margarita are much more right wing, believing that Nazi Germany is Greece’s friend and that the Communists are the dangerous ones.

One of the things I liked about the novel is that, although we naturally find ourselves siding with Themis as the main protagonist, the whole subject of political division and difference is treated with balance and sensitivity. We see that Thanasis and Margarita, despite standing for everything Themis dislikes, do still have some good qualities, while Panos and Themis find themselves doing some questionable things in the name of their own beliefs. The message I took away from the book is that violence, destruction and killing can never be justified, no matter how much someone may try to tell themselves they’re doing it for the right reasons.

I was struck by this quote which I think feels very relevant to today’s world as well as to 1940s Athens:

People seemed to be losing their humanity. The schism that existed between left and right had been allowed to widen, the polarisation to deepen, and now the city was paying the consequences.

Those Who Are Loved is a powerful, emotional story. So far the only other Victoria Hislop book I’ve read is The Sunrise, which I enjoyed, but found quite uneven. This one is a much stronger book, in my opinion, and held my interest from beginning to end. I do have a copy of The Thread, which will be the next one I read and also set in 20th century Greece.

Thanks to Headline Review for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

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?

The Doctor of Thessaly by Anne Zouroudi

The Doctor of Thessaly This is the third in Anne Zouroudi’s ‘Mysteries of the Greek Detective’ series following the investigations of Hermes Diaktoros, also known as ‘the fat man’. This appears to be a series that can be read in any order – I read the sixth book, The Bull of Mithros, first and then this one and haven’t had any problems; each novel is a complete story in itself. What the books do have in common is the character of the fat man, a theme based on one of the seven deadly sins and a beautiful Greek setting.

The Doctor of Thessaly is set in Morfi, a village on one of the Greek islands. The story begins with the discovery that the village doctor, Louis Chabrol, has been blinded in an attack that took place the night before his marriage to Chrissa Kaligi, the younger of two middle-aged sisters. This crime couldn’t have happened at a worse time, as the people of Morfi and their ambitious new mayor are preparing for a visit from a government minister.

Luckily, our hero, the enigmatic Hermes Diaktoros of Athens, has just arrived in Morfi and when he learns of the attack he begins to investigate. As he moves around the village speaking to witnesses, listening to gossip and collecting evidence he starts to build up a clearer picture of what has happened – and when he eventually discovers who is responsible for the crime, he dispenses his own form of justice.

I thought this was a better book than The Bull of Mithros, though I did like them both. I loved the atmospheric setting of Morfi, a quiet Greek village untouched by tourism or modern technology (it’s not clear when these books are supposed to be set, which I’m sure is intentional – it could be any time in the second half of the 20th century) and I enjoyed meeting the people who live there. I mentioned that each of the books in this series is based around one of the seven deadly sins. This one has a theme of ‘envy’ which is very appropriate as there are many people in Morfi who could be accused of this sin, from Chrissa’s bitter and resentful sister, Noula, to the group of four jealous, spiteful men who are determined to spoil things for the new mayor.

The fat man continues to be a mysterious, elusive character. Is it a coincidence that he has the name of a Greek god? Who are the higher authorities he claims to represent? And why is he so obsessed with keeping his white tennis shoes clean? These things were as much a mystery when I read the sixth book as they were reading this third book, so unless the truth about his identity and background are going to be revealed at the end of the series it seems that we are going to be left to make up our own minds about Hermes Diaktoros. I do like him though; not only is he concerned with making criminals pay for what they have done, he also wants to help the people he meets along the way and leave the village behind in a better, happier state than when he arrived.

I will continue to read the other books in the series, though I think they are the type of books that would start to feel repetitive if read too close together so I’ll probably wait a while before starting another one!

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.

The Bull of Mithros by Anne Zouroudi

This is the sixth title in Anne Zouroudi’s “Greek Detective” mystery series. I haven’t read any of the five previous novels but that wasn’t a problem at all as this one worked perfectly as a standalone mystery.

The story is set on the small Greek island of Mithros, where the peace and tranquillity of island life is broken when a man is robbed and another killed by the escaping thieves. Seventeen years later, a boat appears in the bay and a stranger is thrown overboard. Until he can provide identification he is forced to stay on the island, where several of the islanders begin to recognise him. Is he connected in some way to the crime that took place all those years earlier? Soon another man arrives on the island of Mithros – this is Hermes Diaktoros, who has come to investigate. But where has he come from and who is he working for?

Hermes Diaktoros is a fascinating and unusual detective, a character shrouded in mystery. His name suggests a connection with Greek mythology (Hermes was the messenger of the gods) and there is definitely something slightly otherworldly about him. We learn very little about his past and he never reveals the identity of his employers either. He is referred to throughout the story as ‘the fat man’, which I thought might be irritating at first but it actually wasn’t. Despite him being such an enigmatic character (or maybe because of it) I really liked the fat man. He also reminded me in some ways of Poirot and in fact I think this series might appeal to Agatha Christie readers.

The pace of the story is gentle and relaxed, but not too slow. It also has a beautiful, atmospheric setting and would be the perfect book to take with you if you’re planning to visit a Greek island this summer! I enjoyed meeting Hermes Diaktoros for the first time and I didn’t feel I was at any disadvantage because of not having read the other novels first. Now that I’ve discovered this series I’d definitely like to read the earlier books and see how the fat man solved his previous five mysteries.

I received a review copy of The Bull of Mithros from Bloomsbury via Netgalley

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett

Pawn in Frankincense, the fourth of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, takes our hero Francis Crawford of Lymond on a journey through North Africa, Greece and Turkey to the court of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

I don’t think it’s necessary for me to say anything about the plot of this novel as I expect most people reading this review will have either already read this book, in which case you won’t need a summary, or if you’re new to the series you’ll need to start with The Game of Kings and presumably won’t want to read too much about this fourth instalment. All I will say is that this book features some of the most heartbreaking moments in the series so far.

I had been looking forward to reading Pawn in Frankincense as the general opinion seems to be that it’s one of the best in the series, and I wasn’t disappointed. I think The Disorderly Knights is still my favourite, but I loved this one too. Like the previous three books it was exciting, emotional and almost impossible to put down. I thought the second half of the book in particular was stunning and the last few chapters were so powerful I’m sure I’ll never forget them; the chess game in the seraglio was one of the most tense, nerve-wracking scenes I can ever remember reading. If you’ve read the book I won’t need to explain why, and if you haven’t then I won’t go into any more detail as I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. I defy anybody to read it without crying or at least being close to tears!

I missed some of the characters from the previous books who didn’t appear in this one, though I do love Archie Abernethy and by the end of the story I loved Philippa too – I hadn’t liked her before but she really came into her own in this book. I also enjoyed learning about the Ottoman Empire, a world I had previously known very little about – I was maybe slightly overwhelmed by all the detailed descriptions at times but they certainly brought each location to life for me. Due to the nature of the story, with Lymond and his companions sailing through the Mediterranean to Constantinople (Istanbul), we are given vivid descriptions of all the places they visit on the way: Algiers, Djerba, Zakynthos, Thessalonika and others, none of which are places that I’ve read much about before.

I’ve started reading The Ringed Castle now and I’m already feeling sad that after I’ve finished it there’ll only be one more book left!