Monday, October 01, 2018

Airs Above the Ground - Circus, Smuggling and Stallions

Some stallions are specially groomed to perform stylized jumps called 'airs above the ground'. Airs Above the Ground, yet another romantic thriller from Mary Stewart, takes the reader galloping airily through adventures in Austria, home of a famous training school for Lipizzaner stallions.

A Lipizzaner Stallion performing the levade - Sean

Vanessa March, having tea with a school friend of her mother's, hears some distressing news. Her husband, whom she thought was in Stockholm, appears to be in Austria! As luck will have it, her tea companion asks if she would accompany her teenage son to Austria, assuming Vanessa is going there to join her husband.

Harrods of London cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Ann Harrison -

And, thus, she's plunged into an adventure of a lifetime. Lewis, supposed to be in Sweden, appears in a documentary about a fire in a circus in Austria!

All at once there it was. ‘Circus Fire in Austrian Village . . . Sunday night . . . Province of Styria . . . An elephant loose in the village street . . .’ And the pictures. Not of the fire itself, but of the black and smoking aftermath in the grey of early morning, with police, and grey-faced men in thick overcoats huddled round whatever had been pulled from the wreck. There was the circus encampment in its field, the caravans, mostly streamlined and modern, the big top in the background..

A village in Styria - Bernd Thaller 

When Vanessa and the teenager, Tim, reach Vienna, they find out that that Tim's real purpose for the journey is to work in the famous Spanish Riding School. Vanessa, in turn, reveals the truth behind her reason to be there. They hire a car and set off for Graz. Near Graz there is a Lipizzaner stud farm. Also, Vanessa thinks the circus she saw in the documentary was there.

Castle mountain Graz - Ralf Roletschek - Wikimedia Commons

Vanessa and the boy find themselves mixed up with drug runners and missing horses. The novel is packed with action scenes, car chases and chases through old castles.
Next moment we in our turn were sweeping over the crest of the hill, and there in front of us, as Lewis had said, was the sprawled darkness of the wood, an avalanche of thick trees spilled down from the mountainside above, and flooding the valley right to the river bank. Beyond this, clear in the moonlight, shone a cluster of white painted houses, and the spire of a village church with its glinting weathercock. Only a glimpse we had of it, and then the car dropped quietly down the hill with a rush like that of the castle lift, and we were whispering through the dark tunnel of the pines. The road slashed through the forest as straight as a footrule, and at the far end of the wooded tunnel we could see yellow points of light which must be the lamps in the village street.
Preview Airs Above the Ground below:

Austria is not as cheap to visit as Greece but it is a place rich in culture. Apparently, it is the next big romantic destination for Indian tourists

In the meanwhile, the best thing to do is to read Airs Above the Ground! With the next post we conclude our tours with Mary Stewart novels, visiting Damascus with The Gabriel Hounds.

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Thursday, September 27, 2018

This Rough Magic - A Tempestuous Adventure in Corfu!

Corfu, in Greece - Shakespeare's supposed setting for The Tempest - is a dream come true for any actor to visit. Naturally, young actress, Lucy Waring, is delighted when her sister invites her to the island. Especially since she is out of employment.

The Tempest - oil painting - William Hogarth - Public domain

British author, Mary Stewart's romantic thriller, This Rough Magic, uses quotes from Shakespeare's play. In fact the title is from Act 5, Scene 1 of The Tempest where Prospero decides to give up magic and return to his former life as Duke of Milan.

Some scholars think that it was Corfu that Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote the drama.

And it is in Corfu that Lucy’s sister, Phyllida Forli, owns three houses, all near each other, in a bay of their own. Phyllida is married to Leonardo Forli, a rich Italian banker. Forli and family live in Villa Forli. And rent out Villa Rotha and the Castello dei Fiori. 

Since Leonardo travels a lot, they asked Lucy over as Phyllida is pregnant. It is their third child, whom Phyllida has decided to name Prospero, after the old duke in the Tempest.

At the villa there is also a maid, Maria, a local peasant with a daughter called Miranda. Shakespeare's Miranda was duke Prospero's daughter and only child. She grew up isolated on the island where they have been abandoned. Maria's daughter, Miranda, however, like her mother, works for the Forlis.

Miranda - The Tempest. John William Waterhouse - Oil Painting Public Domain

Miranda's father has vanished into nearby communist Albania. Her twin, Spiro, is also employed by the Forlis. He is named after a Corfu saint, St Spiridon.

Saint Spyridon Icon, Public Domain

Spiro works at Villa Rotha which has been rented by Godfrey Manning, a photographer. Godfrey Manning is rich and loves fishing and traveling. He even has his own boat-house. Godfrey takes photos of Spiro swimming with a dolphin.

Lucy feels she's in paradise, especially when she gets to swim with a dolphin.

Dolphin, Greece - Harrygouvas

However, someone tries to shoot the dolphin and almost hits Lucy. Lucy thinks it must be a man she sees near the Castello dei Fiori. The man is rude to her, assuming that she is a trespasser. The Castello is another Forli mansion.

Corfu: the Achilleion - Marc Ryckaert, Wikimedia Commons

And the man is Maxwell Gale. Max is trying to protect his father's privacy. His father was a famous actor, Sir Julian Gale. Four years back, Gale's wife and daughter died in an accident. Since then, the actor likes to be by himself. Even so, Lucy's sister finds father and son odd.

Lucy knows that, since two years, the actor has vanished from the drama circles in England. She had seen him act as Prospero in an enactment of The Tempest. Son Max composes music and is working on some for a film based on The Tempest.

Actor Gale is also godfather to Miranda and Spiro, and gave the teenagers their names.

Lucy returns home to find that her sister very upset because Godfrey says that Spiro fell overboard during a night time photography trip.

The next day, Lucy is wandering around the village when she meets Miranda. The girl is with a young man with whom she is having an affair. He is another Forli family employee: Adoni.

Adonis - Painting by Benjamin West [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
In a country where beauty among the young is a commonplace, he was still striking. He had the fine Byzantine features, with the clear skin and huge, long-lashed eyes that one sees staring down from the walls of every church in Greece; ... This youth had, indeed, the air of one who had faced the sinful world for some years now, but had obviously liked it enormously, and had cheerfully sampled a good deal of what it had to offer. .. And not, I judged, a day over nineteen.
Adoni works for the Gales. And it is to their mansion that Lucy is led, one day, by a cute cat:

Somewhere to one side was a thicket of purple judas-trees, and apple-blossom glinting with the wings of working bees. Arum lilies grew in a damp corner, and some other lily with petals like gold parchment, transparent in the light. And everywhere, roses. ...  I had forgotten roses could smell like that.

There she meets Sir Julian Gale. The cat is his and it is called Nitwit. A cat is almost always present in a Mary Stewart novel.

On another day, Lucy goes to the beach with her sister and finds a body washed ashore in their bay. A young man. It is Yanni Zouglas, a local smuggler, says Godfrey who suddenly appears. Max also shows up and Lucy suspects Max of mixing with the smugglers. There is a lot of smuggling between Corfu and Albania, which is just across from the island, separated by a thin strip of water. 

That evening, Lucy's sister is in a panic as she thinks she left her diamond engagement ring in a bag on the beach.  She sends Lucy back to the beach.

The woods were still and silent, the clearing full of starlight. The frogs had dived at my approach; the only sound now from the pool was the lap and stir of the lily pads as the rings of water shimmered through them and set them rocking.

There, Lucy finds the dolphin, lying on the shore. Max, who happens to be there, helps her put it back into the sea. After which he kisses her! They go back to the Gale mansion and there is some more kissing. And some good news.

Spiro is alive but has a broken leg. He is in the mansion with Max, Sir Gale and Adoni. Max says that Godfrey pushed Spiro off the boat and we begin to suspect the photographer of being a smuggler.

Then, Miranda tells Lucy that Adoni has found books in a cave near the Castello villa. Miranda believes they are the mythical magic books of Prospero. Miranda takes Lucy to the cave. Lucy thinks that the 'books' are packages. 

At that moment, Godfrey comes there. The girls hide as he takes away the packages. 

Lucy decides to go after Godfrey and get the packages back. They might be evidence that he is a smuggler. She goes to his boat. She searches the boat for the packages. However, just when she finds them, Godfrey appears and starts the boat. 

When they are well into the sea, Godfrey discovers Lucy. And, though she pretends that she had come on the boat for fun, he soon realizes what she has been up to. There is a struggle between them and Lucy falls into the ocean.

The brave girl swims to the shore somehow. And makes her way to a village. There she finds that she is ten kilometres away from the villas. A young villager takes her home on his motorcycle.

We roared off with a jerk and a cloud of smoke. The road was rutted, surfaced with loose gravel, and twisted like a snake through the olive groves that skirted the steep cliffs, some three hundred feet above the sea. Not a fast road, one would have said—but we took it fast, heeling over on the bends ... The feel of the wind in my hair and the bouncing, roaring speed between my thighs were at once exciting and satisfying after the terrors and frustrations of the night. And I couldn't be afraid. This was—quite literally—the "god in the machine" who had come to the rescue, and he couldn't fail me. I clung grimly to his leather-clad back as we roared along, the shadowy groves flicking past us in a blur of speed, and down—way down—on our left the hollow darkness of the sea...

All at once we were running through a village I knew, and he was slowing down. We ran gently between walls of black cypress, past the cottage in the lemon grove, past the little tea garden with its deserted tables, under the pine, and up to the Castello gate, to stop almost between the pillars.

There she finds Inspector Papadopoulos at Villa Rotha. Max, Adoni, Spiro, Miranda and Godfrey are also there. Godfrey grabs Lucy to try to take her hostage. Foiled, he runs to his boat which explodes.

The novel mixes tense action scenes well with descriptions of the beautiful island and the wonderful villas. Help yourself to a preview on the book cover below:

As with Mary Stewart's other books about Greece, Greek people in This Rough Magic are described as childish folk. But, then, in those days, the Greek was as exotic to the people of the 'West' as we Indians were. A good example of such views was the film, Zorba, the Greek

With the next post, we visit Austria, for a change - the setting for Airs Above the Ground. 

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Labyrinthine Tale Set in Crete - The Moon-Spinners

A Nymph In The Forest - Charles-Amable Lenoir, via Wikimedia Commons

Greek myths are enchanting. Outside the European world, those with an interest in natural phenomena stumble upon this wealth as it was used to name flora, fauna, stars and more. The legends bring the night sky to life more powerfully than any other myths from elsewhere. 

In Greece, the beautiful island of Crete is rich with its own legends. 

Theseus Slaying Minotaur (1843), bronze sculpture by Antoine-Louis Barye, via Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time, a queen of Crete fell in love with a bull and the result was a Minotaur with a bull's tail. Ashamed, the king had a craftsman and his son, Daedalus and Icarus, build a labyrinth, a maze, to keep the beast. There the Minotaur remained, merrily eating young men and women who were sent in to him every year. In time, a hero, Theseus, kills the Minotaur.

Since Daedalus helped Theseus handle the maze, he and his son were so persecuted by the angry king that they tried to escape by making wings with which to fly away. Of course, the wings melted and the story is tragic.

It is against a background of such legends that Mary Stewart creates her Moon-Spinners:
They’re naiads — you know, water-nymphs. 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, which is why they don’t carry a distaff... 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. Night after night, you can see the moon getting less and less, the ball of light waning, while it grows on the spindles of the maidens. Then, at length, the moon is gone, and the world has darkness, and rest, and the creatures of the hillsides are safe from the hunter and the tides are still . . .’ ...
‘Then, on the darkest night, the maidens take their spindles down to the sea, to wash their wool. And the wool slips from the spindles, into the water, and unravels in long ripples of light from the shore to the horizon, and there is the moon again, rising from the sea, just a thin curved thread, reappearing in the sky. Only when all the wool is washed, and wound again into a white ball in the sky, can the moonspinners start their work once more, to make the night safe for hunted things . . .’

Click on Preview, above, to peek into the book 

Nicola Ferris works for the British embassy at Athens. She wants to have a peaceful holiday away from it all and heads for Crete. However, from day one, she's thrown into the arms of adventure. In the form of Mark, a wounded Englishman. He got mixed up with some local trouble. Now, Nicola has to shelter him from dangerous men who are after his life. But that's not all. The villains have Mark's brother, a teenager.

Nicola takes up the challenge like any other Mary Stewart heroine would and we can look forwards to some very exciting pages. There are knife attacks and tense chases through the Cretan landscapes as limping Mark and team scramble to hide from rowdy locals. 

Landscape near the village of Kera (Crete, Greece.)Marc Ryckaert, Wikimedia Commons
There bathed his honourable wounds, and dressedHis manly members in the immortal vest

From The 
Iliad, by Alexander Pope

After attending to Mark's injuries, our heroine goes back to the village where she has booked a room. Nicola finds out that the little village is not as innocent as it looks. She discovers the kidnappers and Mark's brother. The brave young lady defeats the plots of the gang and is rewarded with true love.

The Moon Spinners manages to delight genre lovers with great action scenes and it will also be enjoyed by botanists or horticulturalists.

As the Cretan windmills spin their arms, so Mary Stewart spins for us a tale as mythical as anything Homer wrote. Some of her 'legends', however, can be upsetting for those who are not British. In her times, Greeks were considered rather rowdy and barbaric in person. Such old fashioned ideas need not affect the reader as they are a charming way to see what was, to appreciate what is and to shape what shall be.

We must, for example, look at our own society, in India, and wonder if we are indeed rowdy and vengeful as colonial 'legends' paint us. It is entirely in our hands to decide to fit in with or reject stereotypes. 

Windmills on Crete. Michael, Wikimedia Commons
The Moon-Spinners is a wonderful way to enjoy Crete and Greece on a budget. Not many have money to dash around, visiting distant marvelous places! A book costs less than a tourist jaunt and works almost as well.

As added bonus, the novel helps us have a quick glimpse of English literature with quotes from Pope, Wilde, Keats and more!

There is a film of the book. Some don't seem to like it but I remember enjoying it. Perhaps you should watch the film first and then read the book. Sadly, I can't see it sold on Amazon India. Perhaps Netflix will oblige?

Besides the film, there are audio book versions. Here's an excerpt. Note that the narrator does tend to go blah blah for ages before reading from the story.  

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