Walking the Floor Over You

I have always loved to read, and have always encouraged other people to read. It’s one of the great pleasures of my life, for as long as I can remember. Once I learned how to read, I never stopped reading. I will probably never stop reading. There are fewer non-sexual pleasures in life as satisfying as reading a good book.

As I’ve mentioned before, my grandmother got me really started into watching old movies–both horror and crime–and also encouraged me to read. She was the one who got me started reading Mary Stewart, by giving me her copy of The Ivy Tree; my friend Felicia in high school reminded me of Stewart and so I started reading more of her work. (I still have not read all of Mary Stewart’s work–that “I don’t ever want to run out of something new to read by Mary Stewart” thing I do) And while I enjoyed all of them, I enjoyed some more than others. For example, i remember reading The Moon-spinners, but not really enjoying it very much, frankly. I never revisited the book…but now that I am doing the Reread Project, I decided to give it another read.

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It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it. I won’t pretend I saw it straight away as the conventional herald of adventure, the white stag of the fairytale, which, bounding from the enchanted thicket, entices the prince away from his followers and loses him in the forest where danger threatens with the dusk. But, when the big white bird flew suddenly up among the glossy leaves and the lemon flowers, and wheeled into the mountain, I followed it. What else is there to do, when such a thing happens on a brilliant April noonday at the foot of the White Mountains of Crete; when the road is hot and dusty, but the gorge is green, and full of the sound of water, and the white wings, flying ahead, flicker in and out of the deep shadow, and the air is full of the scent of lemon blossom?

The car from Heraklion had set me down where the track for Agios Georgios leaves the road. I got out, adjusted on my shoulder the big bag of embroidered canvas that did duty as a haversack, then turned to thank the American couple for the lift.

“It was a pleasure, honey.” Mrs. Studebaker peered, rather anxiously, out of the car window. “But are you sure you’re all right? I don’t like putting you down on the hill like this, in the middle of nowhere. You’re sure you’re in the right place? What does that sign post say?”

The above pictured cover was the one I originally read; the reread was of a more recent edition. When I was younger, I was fascinated by ancient history: Egypt, Greece, and Rome, to be exact; Greek or Roman or Egyptian ruins on the cover of a book, especially if it was a suspense novel, drew me to the book like moth to flame. (That was what originally drew me to read Phyllis A. Whitney’s Mystery of the Hidden Hand, which I now believe–my memory lies, remember–was the first Whitney I read, because it was set in Greece) I had also remembered seeing a film version of The Moon-spinners, broken up over two weeks’ episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney, which starred Hayley Mills. I don’t remember much of the film now, but I do remember thinking it was vastly different from the book when I read it the first time. It’s not on Disney Plus (neither is Johnny Tremain or Now You See Him Now You Don’t, which has annoyed me regularly since I signed up for the service), and I’m not about to spend even three dollars on renting it on Amazon Prime–although I was tempted enough to look it up to see if it can actually be viewed anywhere.

Anyway.

I enjoyed the book much more greatly this time. I’m not certain why, precisely, I didn’t like it as much as Stewart’s other books at the time, but sometimes that’s just the way it is. The Moon-spinners focuses on Nicola Ferris, an adventurous young Englishwoman in her early twenties. She works at the British Embassy in Athens; her parents died when she was a teenager and she went to live with her aunt Frances, who is a leading botanist. Frances is also single and terribly independent, like most women in Stewart novels; Nicola admires and loves her aunt greatly and emulates her. Her aunt is taking a yacht voyage with friends around Greece and the islands; Nicola decides to take a vacation, meet up with Frances on Crete–a friend, a travel writer, has recommended a very remote village with a small hotel to them–and Nicola has the great good fortune, while on Crete, to meet an American couple (the above mentioned Studebakers) who are driving around Crete and offer her a lift to Agios Georgios, putting her there a day earlier than expected. (This sentence, describing the Studebakers,  They were both lavish with that warm, extroverted, and slightly overwhelming kindliness which seems a specifically American virtue–is a terrific example of Stewart’s exceptional skill as a writer; in that one sentence she tells you exactly who the Studebakers are.) The Studebakers aren’t terribly keen on letting her off in the middle of nowhere, to lug her suitcases and such over a dusty mountain trail to a village where she isn’t expected until tomorrow and where she will know no one; fortunately her work at the embassy has given her a passable knowledge of speaking Greek.  Nicola insists she’s fine and thanks them for their kindness, and starts trudging along the dusty path.

All of Stewart’s heroines are strong, capable, intelligent young woman who can take care of themselves; and courageous. It is while walking on the path that Nicola’s Greek adventure takes off–she stops at a pond to get a drink of water, and in the reflection of the water she sees a man’s face, watching her. Your average run-of-the-mill heroine would scream and run off or be terrified; Nicola is merely startled and curious. This is how she comes across Lambis, the Greek boatman, and young Mark Langley, who has been shot and needs medical attention. Nicola immediately makes Mark’s problems her own. Lambis, as it turns out, had put in his boat in a nearby bay so that Mark and his younger brother Colin could go exploring and look at the ruins of an old church, originally a shrine to a Greek god but converted during the days of the old Eastern Empire into a Byzantine church. As they are walking back to the boat they come across of small group of people arguing over a recently dead body. Mark is shot and left for dead; Colin is taken. And so, now of course, Nicola wants to help rescue Colin and help Mark–she isn’t, after all, expected for another day, and of course, the killers/kidnappers must be from the small town of Agios Georgios.

Stewart is, as always, an exceptionally talented writer. Her descriptions are simple yet poetic; she vividly brings the town, the mountains, the sea, everything to life so well you can easily imagine yourself there. And courageous Nicola, now possessed of dangerous knowledge that could get her killed, has to navigate the village while trying to help Mark find Colin, with no idea of who she can trust and where she can turn to help.

Nicola is a terrific heroine, and I can see why Stewart was so popular with women and teenaged girls; she wrote smart, no-nonsense, capable young women who were courageous and fearless and could pretty much handle anything. The suspense is, at times, unbearable.

There is an element of romance to the story as well; Nicola begins to have feelings for Mark, but it’s practically an afterthought, and it feels almost like it was inserted into the story. There’s absolutely no need for the two of them to develop feelings for each other; other than the psychological closeness that comes from a shared danger (one of the things I loved the most about the sequel to Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile, is that it showed that happy couples who bond over adventures don’t necessarily wind up living happily ever after; I’ve often wondered about the couples from these types of novels), and this is one of the reasons I no longer really consider Stewart a romantic suspense writer; the romances in her books often feel that way–something inserted into the story later to appease either her agent or editor–and they are completely unnecessary to the story; if anything, the romance develop organically because of what else is going on in the story; the suspense/mystery aspect is the most important part.

And Stewart consistently wrote some of the best openings in crime fiction.

Highly recommended; I will probably reread it again someday.

Ready for the Times To Get Better

Here we are, New Year’s morning, and I am on my second cup of coffee. I, being a tired and tragic old man, went to be around eleven last night and slept for almost ten hours; I did wake up a few times–both times by a purring cat cuddling up to me–and was able to fall back asleep almost immediately. Paul went down to the Quarter to watch the fireworks and watch the fleur-de-lis drop–something we never did when we used to go out partying in the gay bars on New Year’s Eve; we were always inside and wasted by the time midnight arrived–and so I spent a quiet evening at home, falling into Youtube loops of old songs that would remind me of other old songs and old television clips from old series and so forth. I wanted to rewatch Johnny Tremain on Disney Plus, but like Now You See Him Now You Don’t, it’s not there. What the actual fuck, Disney Plus? Ah, well, it will eventually turn up at some point, I would imagine.

There are football games all day today, and I am taking the day off. I am not going to pressure myself to write–although I did have two new short story ideas, and thought about the plot of a potential future novel some–and will undoubtedly spend the day in my easy chair, with The Talented Mr. Ripley and Kirkland Revels, both of which I am currently rereading, with the games on in the background.

Yesterday was, of course, our annual New Year’s Eve lunch at Commander’s Palace with Jean and Gillian, with special guest star Susan Larson. What a lovely time it was. As it was a weekday, the quarter martini special (limit of three, because no one needs more than three) was in effect. I had whatever the blue curacao martini is called, and followed it up with a melon martini. I was literally feeling quite well when we finished and came home, quite frankly, and incredibly glad I limited myself to two of those things. I had the shrimp and tasso in a pepper jelly for an appetizer, and then finished with the pork tenderloin over mashed sweet potatoes with pickled onions, with the bread pudding in bourbon sauce for dessert. Ah, Commander’s–you never fail to please. It’s really a lovely way to see the old year out.

I read a lot of books in 2019–I read a lot every year–but not as much this past year as I usually do; I think it was primarily burnout from being an Edgar judge for 2018.  I read some absolutely amazing novels this past year: The Stranger Inside by Laura Benedict; Gone Too Long by Lori Roy; The Hidden Things by Jamie Mason; Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman; Never Look Back by Alison Gaylin; Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha; Miracle Creek by Angie Kim; Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett; My Darkest Prayer by S. A. Cosby; Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley; Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia; Not Dead Enough by J. M. Redmann; Empire of Sin by Gary Krist; The Warehouse by Rob Hart; They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall–all I will say is I am glad I was not a judge for the Edgars this year because there are so many damned fine novels that I read, and there were so many others I haven’t gotten to yet–the new Hilary Davidson, for one, and so many, many more. I can never read fast enough to read all the great new stuff that comes out every year, let alone ever get caught up from past years.

As I mentioned earlier, I am doing the Reread Project this year–rereading books I read in previous years or earlier in my life, not only to see if they still hold up or to look for more insights not only into writing and structuring but to recall what I enjoyed about them in the first place. I haven’t reread Rebecca now for nearly two years, and I was thinking about how genius it was again yesterday; I always get something new out of it every time I read it, like it’s an entirely brand new novel, and I also love how du Maurier always subverts the reader’s expectations. Genius, really.

I just have a feeling this is a going to be a good year–I’m not sure why, but I just have this sense. Obviously, I could be completely wrong; stranger things have happened.

All right, I am going to do some straightening up here in the kitchen and then it’s off to my easy chair. I think both Auburn and Alabama are playing at eleven, against Minnesota and Michigan, respectively, so that should be interesting. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader!

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