Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Airs Above the Ground

Airs Above the Ground
by Mary Stewart

Blurb (from GoodReads):
Lovely Vanessa March, two years married and very much in love, did not think it was a strange for her husband to take a business trip to Stockholm. What was strange was the silence that followed. She never thought to look for her missing husband in Vienna -- until she saw him in a newsreel shot there at the scene of a deadly fire. Then she caught a glimpse of him in a newsreel shot of a crowd near a mysterious circus fire and knew it was more than strange. It was downright sinister. 
Vanessa is propelled to Vienna by the shocking discovery. In her charge is young Timothy Lacy, who also has urgent problems to solve. But her hunt for answers only leads to more sinister questions in a mysterious world of white stallions of Vienna. But what promises to be no more than a delicate personal mission turns out to involve the security forces of three countries, two dead men, a circus and its colourful personnel. And what waits for Vanessa in the shadows is more terrifying than anything she has ever encountered.

My Reaction:
While not my favorite from the author, this was an entertaining read with pretty much everything I've come to expect from Mary Stewart.  There's the absolutely essential foreign setting-- Austria, this time-- and the requisite element of mystery/gentle thriller/mild suspense with just a touch of romance thrown in to sweeten the p(l)ot.

If you find the idea of travelling abroad more appealing than the actual travel (or if personal finances and/or responsibilities curtail your ability to journey far or often), Mary Stewart's novels offer a nice vicarious vacation.  She's surprisingly good at bringing the ambiance of a place to the page, and I always finish her books with the sensation of having (almost) gone on a trip, myself!

The relative innocence of a highly civilized version of the 1960s is a charming respite from the often crass present day.  On the other hand, there are also a few instances that make modern sensibilities cringe.  (I'm thinking particularly of the heroine's strangely strong reactions to the dwarf, but some of the male/female dynamics also elicited sighs of exasperation.)

There are a number of novels by this author that I've yet to read, but based on my experience thus far, I find that her romance-writing leaves me cold (with possibly one or two exceptions).  I'm not sure what it is, but it's just not at all stirring or particularly exciting... Fortunately, the romance is rarely the main subject of her novels.  (Actually, that might be part of the problem; it's usually too abridged to work well.)

The mystery kept me guessing.  At one point, I thought I'd figured it out well in advance, but it turns out I'd fallen for a red herring.  Then, just when you think the story's nearly over, there's a new spurt of action and drama.  There were a couple of times when the novel bogged down in too much action (though for some that might seem a contradiction), but all in all, this was a good book.  Not a masterpiece, but a good book of its type.  Classic mid-20th-century escapism.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- The parts of the novel that bogged down for me were the rooftop/cellar/stables scene (which just went on for too long, imho) and the chase-the-villain bit.  To be honest, I don't have fond memories of the dramatic-mountain-top-confrontation scene, either... I think I have a very low tolerance for descriptions of action.  A little is good, but not so much!  Keep it sharp and to the point, please.

--  The jewels had me totally fooled.  (That's the red herring referenced earlier.)

--  How amusing (and rather silly) that Lewis turns out to be Secret Service-- or whatever he is.  Secret-Agent Man.  A monogamous, toned down version of James Bond.

--  This book was my introduction to the Lipizzaner stallions.  Of course I had to look them up online, and they're stunning.  I've never been particularly interested in horses, but those highly-trained animals are truly amazing.

--  Vanessa and Tim's discussion of "phrase books" was amusing (and so true, based on an old book of English phrases we have somewhere on our shelves): "Don't you just adore phrase books?  The things they imagine one might want to say... they're almost as good as one's Greek grammar at school.  I remember one of the first sentences I had to put into Greek was 'She carried the bones in the basket.'  I'm still wondering whose bones, and why." ... "The best thing I've come across in my German phrase book is in the section for 'Air Travel'.  'Will you please open the windows' seems to me a funny thing to say to anyone on a plane, somehow."

-- Every so often-- usually, if not always, in British novels-- I've come across a reference to un/glazed windows... or the act of glazing windows... or glaziers.  Maybe I've never bothered to look it up.  I think I had some vague idea that it was something applied to the glass-- a glaze, you know-- to make them more durable/waterproof/something mysterious that is necessary in the UK.  (Though now that I search for it, I find local glaziers, too, so maybe the term isn't necessarily British only.)  Anyway, now I know that an unglazed window is simply a window without glass.  Huh!  As simple as that...

--  Though the novel was originally published in 1965, there's a reference to Hurricane Chloe ("...she swept into that room like Hurricane Chloe"), which (as far as I can tell) was a storm during the 1967 Atlantic season.  (From what I see, it made landfall in France.)  I wonder how that happened...

--  The reference to Stockholm in the blurb made me hope briefly that this would be set in Sweden, but then of course, the same blurb makes it fairly clear that the action's all in Austria.  Oh well.  Maybe someday I'll come across a Mary Stewart style book set in Sweden.  Modern books in Sweden all seem to be part of the recent (on-going?) craze for Scandinavian Crimes.  Possibly interesting, but not at all what I'm really craving.