Nonfiction Review: Stones and Bones of New England, by Lisa Rogak

The subtitle of this book is “A Guide to Unusual, Historic, and Otherwise Notable Cemeteries”, but I’ve found it to be a series of one to two page vignettes about 95 cemeteries in the six New England states. The author has selected what she found to be the most interesting tombstone in each graveyard, adding one or two more if she found them remarkable. A photo accompanies each of the locations.

The back cover describes Stones and Bones as a guide that provides all the tools that you need to explore on your own. If you like to drop into old cemeteries and putter around a bit, I suppose that’s true. For those with a deeper interest in funeral and burial practices, gravestonimagee iconography, and epitaphs, there is little here to hold that interest. Included is some limited but useful information on almshouse burials, some brief description of the headstones of a few famous individuals, and dashes of humor. The photos, though black and white, are sharp and clear. It also identifies the oldest legible gravestone in CT (1644, Windsor.) My favorite chapter was the final one, entitled Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard, where retired ice cream flavors are commemorated with hokey epitaphs and images of winged ice cream cones apparently ready to fly to ice cream heaven. Who knew?!

Recommended for the most casual of cemetery visitors.

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.

Ghost Story: Five Mile House, by Karen Novak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I am Eleanor, and I, like this house, am haunted.” So opens Five Mile House. Former detective Leslie Stone is also a haunted woman, plagued by her memories of countless child abduction/murder cases and of  the perp she shot down in cold blood.  She also sees the ghost of the little girl that he killed. Hospitalized for months for a complete emotional breakdown, she finally returns home to a family which, at best, treats her with wariness. Her husband Greg has accepted a restoration job in the remote little town of Wellington, thinking that a brand new start will do them all  a world of good. But Wellington is a very strange place, and from the first few days, Leslie knows something’s amiss; she may not be police anymore, but her skills and instincts are as sharp as ever. In a matter of days, she discovers that a century ago, Eleanor Bly murdered her all of her children at the mansion, before leaping out the tower window. Gwen, the local woman married to Greg’s assistant, befriends Leslie, and tries to recruit her into her Wiccan lifestyle. The town’s only business is a concrete recycling plant, which is run by a coven that has kicked Gwen out. Worst of all, Leslie views a portrait of Eleanor and is horrified to realize that she looks exactly  like her. Is that why the Wellington’s hired her husband?

Five Mile House chronicles the inner turmoil of two women who have been broken by some pretty devastating circumstances. Parts of the narrative are delivered in Eleanor’s own voice, while Leslie’s is related in the third person. It is fascinating to watch how their two individual stories come to parallel each other, although that actualization doesn’t dawn  until midway through the book. Eleanor at one point comments that Leslie isn’t aware of her presence because she is distracted by her own ghosts and demons. But she hopes that Leslie will vanquish and lay to rest the evil that resides in the very timbers of Five Mile House. The final chapters are loaded with frenzied suspense as the fates of these two women resolve themselves. Not all hauntings are supernatural.

This is a fine debut novel that prompts me to pick up Ms. Novak’s subsequent books.

Books Within Books: The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Years ago, Olivia Frost’s  daughter and husband died in an accident, and she struggled to bring up her son Milo alone. Now she’s a successful novelist, and Milo’s a world famous rock star. While on her way to deliver her latest manuscript to her New York agent, she’s stunned to see a Times Square headline proclaiming the news that Milo has been charged with murdering his girlfriend  at their home in San Francisco. Any mother would drop everything and fly to her child’s side, but in Olivia’s case, they’ve been estranged for the past four years. She goes anyway, hoping to find some way to help.

Olivia’s about-to-be-published novel is a unique, somewhat radical enterprise. Prompted by criticism that her books always have bleak outcomes, she decided to present the final chapter from each of her seven previous works, along with a newly composed revision that changes the ending and the  meaning of each novel.  The irony is that, having completed this new book, her son’s crisis forces Olivia to review her own past, and find ways to effect changes that will heal the breach with Milo and divert the course of her own life. Many of the chapters about mother and son are followed by one of the revised chapters, which relate metaphorically to Olivia’s current experience. For her, reality and fiction are intimately connected. There is also the mystery surrounding Milo’s guilt or innocence. Early evidence suggests that he is. Fortuitously, Ms. Parkhurst desists from turning her protagonist into a modern Miss Marple.

As with all good novels, The Nobodies Album  presents imperfect but compelling characters who struggle with the sorts of psychological upheavals and emotions that mark every life. What if parent and child are a bad fit? Is it possible to rectify mistakes?When the last page has been turned, the reader is left with much to ponder.

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)!