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: 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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It’s a Mystery: A Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Martha Stewart wannabe CC de Poitiers has invaded the tranquility of the picture postcard village of Three Pines, buying up the somewhat creepy mansion in which Inspector Gamache’s last bloody case was brought to a close.  Moving in with her henpecked husband and gifted but unloved daughter, CC manages to cast a pall even over the idyllic Christmas Eve service. She’s also shamelessly purloined the ideas of the villagers  to publish in her new book as her own. So when CC  winds up dead by electrocution during the traditional holiday curling tournament, no one is surprised or sorry. But Gamache must investigate anyway, and has got his work cut out for him. The situation is complicated by the reassignment of agent Yvette Nichol to his squad,  who did her utmost to undermine that last investigation. Then there’s the murder of  a homeless woman in Montreal, a seemingly unrelated crime that turns out to have serious connections to CC’s death.

The charm of this series lies less in its police procedural aspects than in watching Gamache, a serious student of human nature, piece together tiny bits of evidence and intuitions to formulate a coherent theory to pursue. While  occasionally threatening to spill over into the cozy genre, this is avoided by the inclusion of unusual settings and experiences, in this case the curling match and  certain parallels to Eleanor of Aquitaine.  The behavior of seemingly honest and harmless villagers can also be deceiving. There is no such person in Three Pines or in Gamache’s wider sphere of influence, excepting perhaps, his wife Reine Marie. Like Guido Brunetti in Donna Leon’s series, Armand Gamache is a man of intelligence and humanity, someone you’d like to get to know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a Mystery: Please Don’t Tell, by Elizabeth Adler

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s a dark and stormy night on the California coast. There’s a serial killer terrorizing San Francisco, who drugs and rapes his  victims, slits their throats, and leaves them to die; one of these young women is discovered clinging to life and rushed to the ER, where the beautiful Dr. Vivian Dexter stabilizes her before surgery. “Dr. Vivi”, struggling to get over a failed romance, catches the eye of two men, the detective,  hunky Brad Merlin, and the hospital’s famous psychiatrist, “Dr. Ralph”. Miles away on Big Sur, Aunt Fen is disappointed that Vivi must postpone her visit due to the weather. But Fen won’t have to eat alone, for a rugged stranger, drenched and bleeding from a car wreck, appears at her door seeking help.

Thus opens Please Don’t Tell, setting up a plot full of danger and romance.  The love at first sight theme is seriously overextended, especially because several of the men serve as persons of interest. That doesn’t stop Fen, Vivi, and her sister JC from hanging all over them anyway, better judgment be damned. It’s not much of a stretch to foresee who the killer really is, and one of the three will become his next target. Not much of a mystery, not many thrills, but readers who enjoy a heavy dollop of romance will probably enjoy this tale.

It’s a Mystery: The Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connelly

Michael Haller is a defense attorney, one who never hit the big time. He is the object of much disrespect because of the sorts of clients he defends, but Mickey believes that the legal system is stacked against society’s lower strata, and is willing to go to bat for them. If some of his tactics are not exactly on the up and up, well, neither are those of the state.

Michael Connelly introduced Haller in the Lincoln Lawyer, and through the next several books in the series, has developed his character into a street smart sort of guy who, at heart, is something of a crusader. Mickey’s the sort of protagonist that readers really pull for. The Gods of Guilt (a term uses by Haller’s mentor for the jury) features an complex plot, in which his client has been framed for the murder of a prostitute, whom he defended once before and came to care about. As he works to discover who killed her and why, Mickey exposes a web of political corruption, and  is targeted by its masterminds. As a result, he loses someone he cares deeply about. But he also recovers a damaged relationship and forges a new one.  The story is superbly crafted, as I’ve come to expect from Mr. Connelly. This is crime fiction at its best. Wait, scratch that. This is fiction at its best.

It’s a Mystery: Holy Terror in the Hebrides, by Jeanne M. Dams

my rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sixty- something widow Dorothy Martin is an American ex-pat living in England.  Offered the chance to vacation on the tiny Scottish island of Iona, she gladly accepts. But Dorothy has the bad luck to arrive with an American church tour, whose seven members don’t permit their religious convictions to prevent them from squabbling and backbiting. On a group excursion to Staffa, a geological wonder, Dorothy is horrified to observe Bob, the most despised member of the tour, slip on a wet rock and tumble into the churning sea. Shocked at first, she soon recalls that conditions were dry all over the island: could someone have set Bob up for the fall by pouring water on that rock? Perhaps her suspicious would have developed no further, but the next day, huddling uneasily together in the hotel during a fierce rain and wind storm, Dorothy has the perfect opportunity to study each member for motive,  and piece her scanty evidence together. What she concludes shakes her deeply.

Holy Terror in the Hebrides qualifies as a classic English village mystery, but its author is no Brit. Jeanne Dams hails from Indiana, and describes her protagonist as her alter ego. Dorothy is a strong central character, propelling the rather simple plot via her observations, thoughts, and reactions. The actions of all other characters are filtered and interpreted through her. The novel is devoid of violence, with the terror promised by its title occurs in passages late in the narrative, and the denouement  is curiously lacking in suspense.  But Iona is a fascinating setting, and the story’s shortcomings are balanced by personality and atmosphere.