Monday, August 13, 2018

My Brother Michael - Romance and Adventure in Greece

Greece is a romantic destination. 

Tourism Sunset Sea Santorini Greece Oia Island
Creative Commons Zero - CC0.

A place of pilgrimage to see the ruins of the civilisation that birthed Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. Pythagoras, Alexander, ... 

One such spot there is the shrine of an oracle, a person who can see the future: Delphi, once thought to be the Navel of the World!

Kim Bach - Panoramic view of the Apollo Temple in Delphi (The Oracle) 

Delphi is where Camilla Haven, recovering from a breakup, has to drive to, on a strange and urgent request from a man. She is alone, on a holiday in Athens, the capital of Greece. The man approaches her in a café, just as she is writing to a friend that nothing ever happens to her. 

Athens Cafe - CC0 Public Domain

The man says that she must rush to Delphi and that a car is ready for her. Left with no choice, she dives headlong into adventure. Along the way, a Simon Lester becomes her traveling partner. He wants to find out how his brother, Michael, died in Delphi during World War Two. 

Now that we have a car, what more can we expect from Mary Stewart than some dare devilry in driving. Indeed, here, the heroine is in a foreign country and has only recently learned to drive. Now, Greek driving behaviour is shown to be something of the sort we can expect in India and so you can well imagine what to expect. Humour and thrills go well together and we enjoy how she has a bus in front that will not get out of the way, just as if there was one of those Haryana Roadways drivers at the wheel. If that is not enough then she is overtaken by a lady driver. One who looks exactly like her. 

Add to dangerous driving a bunch of some really scary villains. And a handsome, man-of-action hero. A sure formula for entertainment. However, a Mary Stewart is not only fun but good stuff for the mind. 

My Brother Michael is rich with quotes from Greek classics. And the hero is familiar with these classics 

Not only is the book rich with reference to Greek mythology, which has excellent stories, and descriptions of the beautiful terrain, it is also a quick way to get an idea of the history of the region. 

We learn what became of such a world capital of culture, and what it was like there in the Second World War. During that war, many European countries suffered greatly under invasions. Of course, there were freedom fighters in Greece but there were also traitors. And, it was because of betrayal that Simon's brother, Michael, died during the War. 

Just as in many other novels by Stewart, we do not know whom to trust. Camilla is alone, though with a new-found handsome and highly educated male companion, and she is very short of money. Grab the book and read on to find out what happens!

My Brother Michael is one of my favourite Mary Stewarts. I suppose I enjoyed it all the more because I was reading Gerald and Lawrence Durrell. Gerald's famous My Family and Other Animals is set in Greece as are some of his brother's more serious and less enjoyable books. Also, in the days when I came across the novels of Mary Stewart, Zorba the Greek was being screened in India.

Reading the book I could imagine doing Greek dances amidst olive groves and Greek ruins. 

Besides all these treats, Mary Stewart also offers us delightful descriptions of the country's food and drink.


Perhaps, these places and happenings appear distant to us in space and time, but the more we know about the world the better it is for us in countless ways. We can enjoy many more things than if we only drank at the fountain of our own culture. We become comfortable with global thought and culture and this makes us better placed as ambassadors of our own culture. 

"I think the secret is that it belongs to all of us ... We've learned to think in its terms, and to live in its laws. It's given us almost everything that our world has that is worth while. Truth, straight thinking, freedom, beauty. It's our second language, our second line of thought, our second country. We all have our own country ~~ and Greece."
My Brother Michael

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Monday, August 06, 2018

Coach English - Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting is a romantic thriller by Mary Stewart, a British author. Usually, such books are not considered educative. However, a Mary Stewart can be a way to skim through classical English literature not only painlessly but with thrills and romance.

Still very popular, though first published in 1958, fast moving, griping, the novel is full of references to classical English writers. The title is inspired by lines in a drama from Shakespeare's times. Quotes from that play open nine of the twenty-nine chapters of the book. 

Those "coach" chapters involve travels by car, crucial to the story - the Ninth Coach is the last chapter. Car chases involving Bentleys and Mercedes are a highlight of Mary's mysteries.

Now, let's not put the coach before the horse and let's cut to the chase to tell you what it's all about. Linda Martin is going to the Château Valmy, a castle in France. 

Château De Menthon-Saint-Bernard Castle France by Pixaline
There, she will be governess to Philippe, a nine year old French aristocrat. She's only twenty-three. In the olden days, in England, rich people hired such ladies to tutor and look after their children.

Linda had lived in France, as her mother was French, until she lost her parents in a plane crash when she was only fourteen and was sent to an orphanage in England as her father was English. He was also a poet and this is another familiar theme in a Mary Stewart, besides the car chases. Somebody or the other, in her books, is a literary figure. 

When the novel opens, she has been working as a badly paid teacher. She is lonely, without family and friends. And this is why she is excited about the position in France. She was hired by the boy's aunt and, felt that, as the lady wanted an English person, she should not reveal her true background.

Since the boy is also an orphan, Linda feels a bond. After his parents' deaths, the child lived with an uncle, Léon de Valmy, an archaeologist who, due to the nature of his work, has only recently come into the boy's life.  And is now in a wheelchair. 
He is very dominating and Linda feels he can read her mind.

The aunt, Héloïse, is cold and the little boy is quiet, serious and well behaved. Some of the staff of the Chateau are friendly to Linda and others are not. The atmosphere is tense.

Linda, who had been excited to return to France, feels lonely. And, naturally, when Leon's son, Raoul, arrives and begins to take her out and more, she feels as if Prince Charming has come into her life. However, many accidents happen to young Philippe and Linda becomes suspicious. She takes matters into her own hands and flees from the castle with the child. She goes to an English friend, a man called William Blake, and hides in his cabin. It's a very scary part of the book.

Mary Stewart sets her action in very scenic locations. Here, we have the beautiful mountains of a part of France near Switzerland. The author will make you want to visit the area with her fine descriptions, including that of the famous Lac Leman.

Lac Leman, Delachaussée
CC BY-SA 3.0

The story will remind some of Jane Eyre. There are also Cinderella elements with the romance between a kind of lord and a common woman. The aristocrat in question, is, however, somewhat sinister, though also a Prince Charming.

Suspense, love, adventure in all kinds of adventurous terrain - what more can you ask for? Just the kind of book to curl up with this monsoon! Click the book cover at the top of this post to preview the book.

In Mary Stewart's own words, here's her recipe for her evergreen bestsellers: 

I take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal, everyday people with normal, everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not 'heroic' in the conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary, with great physical bravery, what they held to be right.

The novel is so well liked that many re-read it every year! 

From France, we travel next to Greece with My Brother Michael:  
Nothing ever happens to me. 
I wrote the words slowly, looked at them for a moment with a little sigh, then put my ballpoint pen down on the café table and rummaged in my handbag for a cigarette.
 As I breathed the smoke in I looked about me. It occurred to me, thinking of that last depressed sentence in my letter to Elizabeth, that enough was happening at the moment to satisfy all but the adventure-hungry. That is the impression that Athens gives you. Everyone is moving, talking, gesticulating - but particularly talking.
My Brother Michael

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Saturday, August 04, 2018

Thunder on the Right

Thunder on the Right has artist Jennifer Silver thundering off to the French Pyrenees to investigate a cousin's death in a car accident there. The Gothic mystery romance is studded with random handsome hunks. Add to that the usual Stewart stew of literary references and locale and you have just the book to curl up to on a rainy August. 

Mary Stewart has written a modern – that is, 1950s – take on the Gothic novel, featuring classic tropes such as a nunnery, stormy weather, isolation, an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, creaking doors etc. The narrator mentions Mrs Radcliffe, leading exponent of the Gothic novel.

Sinister nuns and a case of amnesia sound delicious in a story but that is not all that's mouthwatering - Thunder on the Right offers lip-smacking descriptions of French food. The story opens to a fabulous lunch:
a morsel of truite maison, exquisitely cooked ... the waitress, a pretty dark-haired Bordelaise without a word of English, brought the croquettes de ris de veau a la Parmentier, the pommes de terre sautees, and the petits pois en beurre, and Jennifer ... was making again the wonderful discovery that simple greed is one of the purest of human pleasures... she thought, helping down the sweetbreads with a mouthful of topaz-colored wine... the meringue Chantilly succeeded the sweetbreads at her table ...
With the beautiful mountains as backdrop, romantic suspense thunders right, left and centre in this Mary Stewart. 

Angel de los Rios Cirque de Gavarnie

In the next post, we continue - again in France - with Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting - a feast of literary allusions and more!