Modern Lit: Our Picnics in the Sun, by Morag Joss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Our Picnics in the Sun is a quiet, deeply introspective book, one which, for the first half, creates the impression that it is little more than a slice of life tale. The focus is the life that Howard and Deborah Morgan have tried, quite unsuccessfully, to build for themselves by living in tune with nature in a tumbledown cottage on Exmoor, aptly called Stoneyridge.  Their son Adam, now grown, rejected his parents’ philosophies, and decamped as soon as possible for a job that could provide him with all that was missing from his childhood. A picture of this family’s strained relationship is related alternately by husband, wife, and son. Howard emerges as a virtual dictator with iron clad ideals, and Deborah as his often unwilling minion. They are as poor now as when they so hopefully set off on their life together so many years ago.

Then, while practicing yoga in the pig shed, Howard suffers a stroke. He survives, and Deborah is left to care for him alone. While this gives her somewhat more autonomy, the couple is more poverty stricken than ever, and she can’t possible manage the house, chickens and sheep along with her patient, who can speak only with halting difficulty. From this point forward, the novel turn from prosaic to masterful. The depiction of Deborah’s struggles as caretaker is brilliant, restrained yet so vivid that the reader can feel what she’s feeling. When Adam fails to return home for a long awaited birthday celebration, her anguish is palpable. This may be one of the most effective evocation of loneliness ever written. Rescue comes in the form of a visitor,  a young man by the name of Theo, whose neediness is immediately evident to Deborah and provides an outlet for her frustrated maternal urges.

As the second half unfolds, there is a growing sense of isolation and a vague sort of menace. The moors, upon which the eponymous picnics took place, are a splendid metaphor for the reality of the Morgans’ existence. Suspense builds, although there are no overt threats of any kind. But Deborah, encouraged by Theo, begins to question all the choices she has made. The memories that she recounts are striking, especially the one she most painfully regrets. Perhaps the novel’s conclusion shouldn’t be so startling, but I never saw it coming.

Its darker overtones notwithstanding, Our Picnics in the Sun is  lovely and memorable, lyrical in many places and dramatic. It will linger in my mind for a long time.

The Classics: The Hand of Ethelberta, by Thomas Hardy

Ethelberta Chickering grew up determined to raise her status in the world, and when the son of the house where she served as governess proposed marriage, she agreed with alacrity. Her mother-in-law is snooty, but when Ethelberta is suddenly widowed while on her honeymoon, she takes the young woman under her wing. When the old lady dies, Ethelberta’s sole means of support is gone, and, frantic about losing her social position, she determines to marry as soon as possible. Granted the use of the family townhouse in London, Berta recruits her entire family, bumpkins all, to pose as her servants until she can snag herself as husband.  She is young, beautiful, and conniving, and has no trouble attracting suitors. The plot thickens.

This is far from Thomas Hardy’s typical moralistic, tragic tale of woe. Subtitled “A Comedy in Chapters”, the novel is not funny in the modern sense of the word,  there are some remarkably droll moments. Rather, it lacks his signature tragic ending. But one of the themes prevalent in most of his work concerns problems of sexuality and marriage, and that is the case in Ethelberta. It also focuses upon Victorian restrictions upon women, and social inequalities, and some critics characterize him as an early feminist in his leanings, which seems to be the case here. Ethelberta is not a vacuous woman, but one torn between her dread of returning to her humble origins and her genuine concerns for the welfare of all the members of her family.  While she does have her flighty side, so do her male acquaintances, and she is determinedly singleminded. Romantic love is a notion that she rejects;  although she is powerfully attracted to Christopher Julian, an impoverished music teacher, she never considers him an acceptable match. In her pursuit of what she views as happiness, she is not unlike many of her modern contemporaries.

Hardy, of course, writes in a 19th century style, with 19th century sensibilities, which in places becomes tedious. But his books revolve around timeless themes, and Ethelberta is no exception. As for the ending, for Hardy, it’s a surprisingly happy one.

 

Thriller: The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis

Human trafficking has been much in the news lately, and this crime is rampant in Eastern and Northern Europe since the demise of the USSR left such a vacuum in its wake. In The Boy in the Suitcase, it’s a three year old who’s been kidnapped. His mother fears that he will be sexually abused, but, if possible, the fate planned by the kidnappers is even worse. Red Cross nurse and humanitarian Nina Borg discovers the child stashed in a locker at the train station, and begins a quest to rescue him and return him to his home, wherever that may be. He speaks no Danish, which compounds the difficulties inherent in the situation, and it isn’t long before some terrifying events take place.

Nina is characterized as a social activist with a mission to save the world. Her long suffering family wishes she’d direct some of that energy to them. She seems to be very intelligent and resourceful, but it’s hard to fathom why she undertakes this burden on her own, not notifying authorities or even her own husband. If you manage to table that question, The Boy in the Suitcase is one of the best thrillers published in recent years. The book fits snugly into the Scandinavian noir genre, but the authors are able to build incredible tension without the gory horrors that seem so prevalent in those novels. Nina is vividly presented as a compassionate woman who has never managed to develop the professional’s ability to keep a lid on her emotions. Certainly her family relationships are problematic; paradoxically, she chooses to distance herself emotionally from husband and children. I hope the authors address this conundrum in any sequels they write. As for the denouement, it is truly unanticipated, and ultimately chilling.

Not bad for a pair of writers whose backgrounds are in fantasy (Ms. Kaaberbol) and children’s books (Ms. Friis)!

Paranormal Fiction: Thores-Cross, by Karen Perkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Historical fiction meets paranormal in Thores-Cross, a novel set on the outskirts of a Yorkshire village that was submerged to create a reservoir. Emma Moorcroft is an author with writer’s block following a miscarriage. She and her husband have resbuilt their dream home along the shores of Thruscross Reservoir, where Emma spent many happy childhood summers. Their closest neighbors , descendants of the family that owned the village in the 18th century, tell Emma a story about Jennet, the young village wise woman who becomes known as a witch.  Soon Emma starts having strange nightmares, and it isn’t long before she begins writing again, compulsively, day and night.

Thores-Cross is less a ghost story than a haunting. Although no ghost ever appears,  Emma soon realizes that it’s the spirit of Jennet emerging through her writing. Each of the women narrates her own experiences from their own place in time, and of the two, Jennet’s is by far the most compelling. Ms. Perkins knows her Yorkshire folklore and traditions, and does a superb job of capturing rural life and customs in the moors of the 1700’s. Jennet seems real, and it’s possible to feel a strong sense of rapport with her. On the other hand, Emma and her husband and neighbors come across as vapid, her experiences, although they drive the story, mere melodrama.

While nothing especially scary ever happens,  Jennet’s tale is realistic and engrossing and gives pause for thought. A work of straight historical fiction with her at its center might have been even more effective. Emma’s ends in a predictable, rather hurried fashion.

 

Paranormal Fiction: Inamorata, by Megan Chance

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Megan Chance creates a twist on the currently popular vampire theme in Inamorata. Struggling American artist Joseph Hannigan and twin sister Sophie travel to Venice, where they hope to find a patron interested in supporting  and championing his work. Everyone who sees it thinks it’s quite extraordinary, and are equally entranced by the beauty and inter-connectedness of the twins. At the same time,  failed poet Nicholas Dane has arrived, bent on tracing the whereabouts of Odile Leon, the enchanting seductress who left him deep in despair. Odile, it seems, possesses the powers of a muse, and while her amorous conquests produce beautiful work during their relationship, the men lose their inspiration when they part. As the Hannigans penetrate the inner circle of artists and patrons, young men begin to die in suspicious circumstances, and Nicholas suspects that Odile may be involved. The Venice of this novel, set in the late 19th century, is a dark, labyrinthine one, damp and menacing. Its plot revolves on the myth of the succubus, a creature with the upper body of an irresistible woman and the lower body of a serpent. Succubi leach away the creativity and life force from their lovers, in order to maintain their immortality. Slowly paced,the story unfolds in a fairly predictable way, but the ending brings about an unforeseen set of circumstances. It also leaves unresolved a question about the true nature of the twins’ relationship.

Considering the topic, Inamorata elicits less a sense of horror than one of desolation.

Paranormal Fiction: NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Victoria McQueen  has access to “the shorter way” , a bridge that was removed years ago but that she can still locate when she wants to find something. She discovered her gift as a child, when looking for her mom’s lost bracelet. Now, as a troubled adult, she must use it to find and  destroy a monster who preys on children. NOS4A2 is the story of her quest, which will turn into the most harrowing nightmare in a life filled with nightmares. Charles Manx is the monster’s name, and he cruises around at will in a vintage Rolls Wraith that sports the license plate NOS4A2 in honor of the vampire in an equally vintage horror movie. Manx’s current assistant is Bing Partridge, who speaks in rhyme and views himself as nice and normal despite having murdered his parents with a hammer. These two make up one of creepiest duos in modern literature. Over 500 pages of this lengthy novel lead up to an ultimate showdown in Manx’s “children’s paradise”, which he calls Christmas Land.

Joe Hill has a way with words, no doubt about it. In Christmas Land, he has conjured a timeless village which only Manx can enter and depart from at will – until Vic stumbles onto his scene.  Hill draws upon mythology (think vampire, incubus, Batman, immortality), poetry (the concept of inscape, the inner world of the mind described by G. M. Hopkins), music (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and countless Christmas carols), and magic.  He incorporates plays on word and ideas all over the place, and these are great fun to recognize. In many ways this book is Harry Potter for adults. He sets Vic  on a classic hero’s quest, and along the way she receives assistance from the unlikeliest of friends and family. During her struggle, she comes to know and accept herself and to release the deep love and empathy that she holds deep within. Hill has become a master of the contemporary horror novel, understanding that suggestion can be more powerful than the  most grotesque description can ever be. Rather than sicken his readers, he invites them to use their own imagination and fears to experience what his characters are experiencing. And it works. Very, very well. My only criticism of the novel is that its middle third fails to move along at the pace  of the first and final sections.

Most of the reviews I’ve read online contain comparisons between the work of Joe Hill and that of his more famous father, Steven King. It’s my belief that Hill’s writing deserves to be considered on its own substantial merits.

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Historical Fiction: The House at Tyneford, by Natasha Solomons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I felt the shadows draw around the house. They went up with the blackouts while I was sleeping, but when Mrs. Ellsworth unfastened the blinds, the shadows remained.” Elise Landau, main character.

1938 Vienna. The Landau family is Jewish, and they had a lovely, almost idyllic life, full of music and literature,   until the Nazis interfered. Now they must endure a painful separation, fleeing to safer places for the duration. Eighteen year old Elise must go to Tyneford, England and work as a housemaid to the Rivers family, of the landed gentry. Her change in circumstances is difficult and trying, but when Kit, the heir to the estate, comes home on a visit from college, he and Elise fall in love, much against convention. To marry one’s maid, and a Jewish one at that, is simply not done. But the Mr. Rivers is kind to Elise, selling a valuable painting to acquire the funds to bribe Austrian officials into issuing  exit visas for her parents.  Then war, at last, breaks out, and each day becomes a waiting and hoping game.

There are two story lines in this novel, both centering upon the massive changes that war imposes on “life as usual” for civilians.  The main thread concerns all the heartache and obstacles that young Elise must endure and overcome, and the other, the struggles faced by the Rivers family and their staff as they helplessly watch their traditional way of life crumble around them.  This is a character driven book, in which the butler and housekeeper, Kit’s social companions, and various villagers are drawn as palpably as are Elise, Kit, and his father. The plot is simple and unfolds slowly. Natasha Solomons is truly gifted in her ability to conjure evocative, often poetic images, the atmosphere as a whole  charming but decidedly melancholy. And she deserves credit for preventing the elements of romance from overwhelming the story and obscuring its  themes.  True to form, the ending is bittersweet. While some reviewers have criticized it as unrealistic and too convenient,  for me, it hit the right note. Though quite different from Austen’s Jane Eyre, in some places I found Tyneford somewhat reminiscent in terms of location and the plight of the heroine.

An interesting side note: Tyneford, and much of the novel’s plot, are based upon an actual Dorset village, Tyneham, where remnants of both the manor house and the village now comprise a museum of sorts.