A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
So – a new novel by Vulpes Libris’s very good friend Phillipa Ashley is a real event for us. As a result, Moira, Ticky and Hilary were tugging Miranda’s Mount this way and that, oh so politely trying to grab it for review, until we worked out that it wouldn’t come apart, and so we decided we’d better share the honours. Declaration of interest time: we’re all friends of the author, and a couple of us had a sneak preview of the novel while it was in development – so we had a good idea in advance why we’d be wanting to tell you how enjoyable it is. In this novel Phillipa has given herself more space to develop a story that is joyous, moving, sexy and sometimes very funny, and we’re really looking forward to sharing our reactions to it.
First, the not very spoiler-y bit: the setting is St Merryn’s Mount, a fairytale castle on a towering island off the Cornish coast. There the heroine, Miranda Marshall, is the property manager; with the widowed Lady St Merryn, she runs it as a spectacular and successful visitor attraction, but the responsibility of managing such an iconic location as a family concern is proving an almost overwhelming task. Lady St Merryn’s son Jago, Earl of St Merryn, the current lord and master, has evaded the responsibility for years, but suddenly comes home and proposes a radical new future for the Mount. What has brought him home, and can anything make him stay? The tension for both Jago and Miranda between the professional and the personal drives the novel to its satisfying ending.
So what did we think?
Moira: I really enjoyed it. There’s a wonderful spontaneity about Miranda’s Mount that’s too often missing from romantic novels, many of which come across as perfectly readable and well-crafted, but very formulaic (not entirely surprisingly, given that there are any number of ‘How to …’ books on the market, which make the art of romance-writing sound like the literary equivalent of painting-by-numbers).
Hilary: Miranda’s Mount has so many things going for it as far as I’m concerned. I love Cornwall and think the vision of a castle in the sea off the Cornish coast is my idea of a fairy tale life – but what is it really like, and what does it cost, to live there? It’s a fantastic location for a drama to be played out, and a clever choice, because, as one of the characters says, it’s a highly beautiful and picturesque prison once the tide is in, and that means that so many of the dramatic scenes have to play out right there.
Moira: Yes, I’m a sucker for books with a Cornish setting too … but even allowing for that, St Merryn’s Mount is a great location – slightly exotic but at the same time familiar … an ancient monument crawling with tourists. It’s the primal allure of islands, isn’t it? Cut off by the tide for hours at a time … in this world, but not entirely of it.
Ticky: Well, darlings, I’m going to make myself terribly unpopular. I’m a great fan of Phillipa Ashley, but Miranda’s Mount isn’t my favourite of her books. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good: it’s frightfully good, actually, and very well written indeed. But it didn’t quite speak to me in the way I suspect it did to both of you. Even with the primal allure of islands and all that.
Hilary: Ticky, darling, we do know that there are North Cornwall people and South Cornwall people, and you’ve, naturally, spent most of your time in Rock, but what does St Merryn’s Mount do for you?
Ticky: Not an awful lot per se, in the sense that my idea of hell is a remote location without a Ferragamo shop. But I did so enjoy visiting it in fiction. And it was quite nice being in a proper ancestral home: I never really had that, since Mummy sold ours off.
Hilary: But the driving force behind a modern romance has to be the hero and heroine. Let’s start with Jago (and why not) – would you have fallen for him? Jago is a splendidly vivid hero, but I’m not sure if my initial reaction to him will be the same as my co-reviewers. Hands up, Moira and Ticky, if you thought he was a completely irredeemable prat when he first appeared? I really had no hopes for him at all, even if “he looked like a mythical god who’d fallen to earth naked and had to raid a recycling skip”. But what I loved throughout the book was to see him live that down. In fact, if the novel were not called Miranda’s Mount, I’d have loved to see it called Jago Grows Up!
Moira: Jago grew on me as the book progressed. I found myself wanting to slap him upside the head from time to time, because I don’t have an awful lot of time for people who sulk and wallow in their own misfortunes … but we do indeed get to watch him grow up, which is always very satisfying, and he’s terrific value for money in a Douglas Fairbanks-y sort of way (she said, showing her age horribly …).
Ticky: This was actually my primary problem with the book, and it’s totally subjective: pure chemistry, really. You see, Jago isn’t my type at all. Oh, he might be mysterious, disreputable and handy with a cutlass, but he’s also what Mummy would call One of Us (ew), and I have this awful feeling she’d approve of him. That does rather kill the romance, I’m afraid. He’s beautifully written, but just not for me.
Hilary: Ticky, my sweet, I might have known you’d first met him when he was in leading strings and know him too well. Did he rub jelly in your hair at a birthday party or something? So… Miranda. She’s a sympathetic heroine, but equally has some growing to do – I’m never quite sure what to make of someone who is described, more than once, as ‘prim’ – and a past to come to terms with, but she’s able, feisty, a great team player and her tower of strength role comes through without her losing the sympathy of the reader. Sometimes she abandons the capable persona and loses the plot entirely, but far from being implausible I found that worked really well. With Jago, the verbal sparring off duty was brilliant – sometimes witty, sometimes serious and always real. At work, they tended to switch to another language, more stilted and less engaging; but then – they are seriously at odds, and at one splendid point, Jago says ‘If I’d have known the Mount’s finances were being wasted on teaching my staff to talk management crap, I’d have come back years ago.’ Go Jago! Did I say I loved the jokes? I loved the jokes.
Moira: I loved the jokes too … one of them had me honking with laughter in a very undignified way. I suspect Ticky would have disowned me. As for Miranda … She has such a vivid, believable voice – a very modern one – and that’s part of what I enjoyed so much about Miranda’s Mount: it’s a modern romance in a gothic setting that you can both escape into and relate to. Miranda could be me … or you.
Ticky: Or me. What? Why are you looking at me like that?
Hilary: There’s such a splendid backdrop and a great cast of characters for Miranda and Jago to play off, too.
Moira: Yes – all the usual suspects are present and correct of course: the curmedgeonly aristo, the feisty-but-damaged heroine with a dysfunctional family background, a slightly exotic location, colourful locals … but it’s all delivered with great panache and considerable verve and you just KNOW that Pip really enjoyed writing it. In places the dialogue is so fresh and snappy it almost sings and the assorted supporting characters are well-realized rather than just space-fillers, there to move the plot along. I was particularly fond of the wonderfully named Ronnie and Reggie (an allusion that might possibly be lost on younger or non-UK readers …) – the island’s ‘odd couple’ security team. They deserve a novel of their own really.
Ticky: I do love Ronnie and Reggie, and the strong cast of characters meant that I wasn’t stuck with dear, awful Jago like the last bore at a dinner party. This meant I still got plenty out of it even though I wasn’t into the central romance. That’s the brilliant thing about Phillipa: there’s always this great sense of context. She’s particularly good at the funny little interactions between people that make a situation awkward, or exciting, or hilarious. You always want her characters to have a happy ending, even if you do question their taste.
Hilary: I found the pace of the narrative nicely structured around dramatic set pieces and very real-feeling slices of life on the Mount. All the detail about the running of such a complex operation seemed authentic, but it never felt geeky and never palled. I loved the way the cast of characters are almost all given the affection and respect they deserve – even when they are throwing rocks in the road for Jago and Miranda.
So … how was it for you?
Moira: As is very often true with Pip’s books, you’re not absolutely certain that it’s going to do the proper romantic thing of having everyone living happily ever after … and that’s part of what makes it so wonderfully readable.
Hilary: I enjoyed it so much. I know the location that inspired Mount St Merryn, and in the novel it is so alive for me that I might have been there. I can see its beauties and its challenges in my mind’s eye – I have climbed that path to the castle, and what is worse, have walked down again. The setting is wonderful – the descriptions are so vivid that I can see, hear and even smell the amazing sea and landscapes.
Ticky: I would definitely recommend this, unless you’re sick to the back teeth of earls.
Hilary: (Blowing the froth off her pint of Doom Bar) Ticky darling, I’ve a way to go before that happens!
Phillipa Ashley: Miranda’s Mount. London: Hachette Digital (Piatkus Entice), 2012. 240pp
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