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.

You’re the Inspiration

Ah, another week.

I finished watching Black Sails this weekend, and wow. Wow. WOW. That was, without a doubt, one of the best series finales I have ever seen. I cried. Yup, I did. There was a twist there at the end that I did not see coming, and it was so incredibly moving and emotionally satisfying…I mean, wow.

I cannot recommend this show highly enough.

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I love pirates, which was part of the reason why the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were so innately disappointing; sure, I enjoyed Johnny Depp’s performance in the first one, but after that they just seemed like parodies of the first, and the plots, such as they were, were ridiculous. I think I was very young when I saw Treasure Island in two parts on The Wonderful World of Disney, and around that same time A High Wind in Jamaica also aired. I became all about the pirates–there were even Nancy Drew (The Haunted Showboat) and Hardy Boys (The Secret of Pirates’ Hill) and Three Investigators (The Secret of Skeleton Island) adventures revolving around pirate treasure; and any number of Scholastic Book Club mysteries about searching for treasure left behind by pirates. I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island when I was around ten; it was an illustrated version, and I remember the pictures as if I just saw them yesterday.

So, yeah, I’ve always loved pirates.

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I started watching Black Sails a year or so again, and it just didn’t catch on with me. I don’t know why, nor do I remember why. I gave it two episodes and stopped, and I do remember thinking, meh, it’s visually stunning, but I don’t care. But earlier this year, needing something to keep me entertained whilst on the treadmill, I decided to give it another whirl, and got sucked right in.

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Visually, it is an absolutely stunning show. Set in the Bahamas in the early eighteenth century, Nassau in particular, the scenery is spectacular. The visuals are breathtakingly beautiful; the ships at sail, the water, the island, the beach, the town, the costumes. Visually, it’s a sumptuous feast.

In the first episode we meet Captain Flint, John Silver, and Billy Bones; as soon as I heard the names (I only knew it was a pirate show) I knew what it was: a prequel to Treasure Island. This time around, that really got my interest going. But what was strange was that there were also characters who actually existed in history: Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, Edward Teach. The lines between the real characters and the fictional soon became so blurred that I forgot I was watching a prequel to Treasure Island most of the time, and was watching a fictionalized version of history; Nassau and the Bahamas were  a failed British colony basically taken over by pirates; the British Empire was too busy dealing with the War of the Spanish Succession to be bothered with doing anything about Nassau; and Captain Flint’s plan to set up a republic of pirates and escaped slaves was actually based in history; I have a book about it called The Republic of Pirates that I haven’t gotten to read yet (but I’ve moved it up the TBR pile).

And of course, the cast is stunningly beautiful.

I mean, Tom Hopper as Billy Bones:

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Toby Stephens as Captain Flint:

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Luke Arnold as John Silver:

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Zach MacGowan as Charles Vane:

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And my favorite character turned out to be Jack Rackham, played by Toby Schmitz.

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What was also enjoyable to me was that the cast was also diverse; and the women weren’t there simply to look pretty, be ogled, or be used as sexual pawns. They were integral parts of the cast, and drove a lot of the action on the show, and were incredibly strong. Eleanor Guthrie ran Nassau; Max moved from being a mere worker in the brothel to major position of power; Madi was Queen of the Maroons and spoke for/led her people, and of course, Anne Bonney was just a badass.

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I also loved that the show included the Maroons; escaped slaves who made their own community and resisted being recaptured.

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All of the characters were fully realized; and the plot was so intricate as each character formed friendships/romances/alliances, and betrayed others, as they tried to gain the ascendancy, not only in Nassau but also over the treasure of the Spanish galleon Urca de Lima. It was interesting watching the characters change and evolve based on their experiences, what they went through, and what they suffered. The relationships, the friendships, completely made sense–even when it came to the betrayals. I was so caught up in the story that it wasn’t until the fourth season that I started remembering, “oh, no, this is the prequel to Treasure Island, and the pirate republic eventually collapsed,” which meant, to my fear and horror, that most of the cast wasn’t going to get out alive.

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Also, serious props to the characterization of Woodes Rogers, the British man who comes to the Bahamas determined to solve the piracy problem with a good heart and good intentions; watching him slowly evolve into one of the best villains on the show as his ideals are slowly stripped from him by circumstance and reality was mesmerizing.

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All of the characters evolved and changed, which is a rarity in any television series, but the acting and writing in Black Sails was so superb it never hit a false note.

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And it was interesting in that not only were women shown nude, but there was full frontal male nudity as well.

In the first season there was a lesbian relationship–which I figured, of course there is, gotta give the fanboys some hot girl-on-girl action–but again; while there were sex scenes, the relationship wasn’t prurient and was depicted as honestly and as importantly as any of the heterosexual romances.

I don’t want to give spoilers, and I won’t–because some of the most powerful surprises in the show have to come as a surprise, or will lose their impact–but in Season 2 as we get the back story on one of the principle male leads….he’s gay, and that changes, not only the character, but everything that came before. And his story is absolutely heartbreaking, and played brilliantly.

And the ending! Again, no spoilers, but I cried. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a series finale that felt so right, so perfect, as an end for a story. Where Black Sails succeeded was in making you care about the characters and understanding their relationships, rather than just focusing on story and the size and scope of the show–which, don’t get me wrong, is also pretty amazing.

Bravo, Starz. This is the second series of yours I’ve watched all the way through–the first being Flesh and Bone, which was also brilliant–and I have to say, Starz is kicking ass on the series front. Wow. Loved it.

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