Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Shivering Sands

The Shivering Sands
by Victoria Holt

Ancient ruins. Family scandal. Forbidden love.
Caroline knows something is wrong. Her sister Roma has gone missing, and no one can tell her why. The only option is to go where Roma was last seen—an estate with a deadly history...
The Stacy family has lived off the Dover coast for generations, carefully navigating the treacherous quicksands nearby. But the sands aren't Caroline's biggest threat. Everyone here has a secret, especially enigmatic young heir Napier Stacy. No matter where Caroline turns, the ground she walks is dangerous. And the closer she comes to unraveling the truth, the closer she comes to sharing her sister's fate...

My Reaction: 
I have a certain fondness for gothic novels, though sadly there are a great many unsatisfying and/or ridiculous books in that genre.  I suppose I'll keep muddling through them, lured on by the hope that the next one will be better than the last.

As these novels go, this one seems about average.  Not remotely literary, but perfectly readable, it's peopled with strange characters who have mysterious pasts and behave in suspicious ways (and have frustratingly repetitive conversations).  The heroine isn't a complete idiot, yet neither is she particularly astute.  The romance, unfortunately, is just blah-- an unappealing love interest and no perceptible chemistry-- but I've come to almost expect that of gothic romances/thrillers.  Rarely is the romance up to snuff.  As for the mystery, you'll probably have it figured out by the end, if you're paying attention and "playing along at home".  Add to the mix a hefty dollop of implausibility and a sprinkling of melodrama-- and there you have it!

None of the parts are remarkable (or remarkably palatable), but taken altogether, they combine to make a pulpy gothic mystery-romance-thriller that can be enjoyable, if read in the right frame of mind, under the right circumstances.  (Under the hunter's moon, when the flowers of the rare Baloola tree are in bloom and the wind is in the east...)  I thought it was... okay.

I keep wishing I liked Victoria Holt's novels better, because she wrote so many...  Some of them I've actively disliked; others are okayish-- but I've yet to read one that I absolutely loved.  They're passable, but there's just a spark of magic that's missing.  If I remember, the next one I'll try will be The India Fan, due to favorable reviews.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--It was the title that lured me, as I have always been fascinated by the idea of quicksand.  The fact that it is the title is a blatant clue to the solution of a couple of the mysteries (though there's a twist).

--The setting is Victorian England-- for some reason I want to say it's around the 1880s-- but there are anachronisms/improbabilities galore (imho). Examples below:

* It wouldn't have been likely that a woman would have pursued a career in music, yet we have Caroline and Napier's mother who have apparently given up chances at brilliant careers as pianists.  Then there's Roma's career as an archaeologist.  One or two such trail-blazing woman would've been enough for one novel.  Three is just silly.

* Characters use phrases that don't seem correct for the time period.

* Mrs. Lincroft has the girls (most of whose ages are never definitively stated-- somewhere between 12/13 and 16) reading Jane Eyre as a school assignment.  Jane Eyre was written for an adult audience.  Unless I'm seriously mistaken, in Victorian times, JE (though a bestseller) would've been considered far too mature and scandalous-- even immoral-- for teen girls to read.  If the setting is the 1880s, things might have settled down a bit since its publication in 1847, but I still doubt that it would've been deemed fitting reading material for impressionable young ladies.  Too much passion, too many unsettling ideas about the equality of the classes and the sexes.  It might have been read on the sly, but I hardly think it likely that a housekeeper acting as a temporary teacher/governess would have made it assigned reading.

* Admittedly, Allegra is supposed to be a handful, but a young lady of the time wouldn't have been allowed to discuss things like illegitimacy so openly.

* Ah, another unlikely "career"-- "Alice says she wants to write stories like Wilkie Collins. ... She could be an actress, too."  Writing novels for publication wasn't something a young woman was likely to do, at the time, and acting... If I'm not mistaken, it was very rare for respectable women to be professional actresses during the Victorian period.  Not to say it never happened, but it wouldn't have been encouraged.

* One of the girls speculates that Edith may have run away to London to be a governess.  Keep in mind that Edith is pregnant when she disappears.  I think it was very rare that employers would want to hire a pregnant young woman to work in their home-- particularly as a governess!  (What a fantasy world!)

--"Did I think one could dismiss the Muse and then summon her back when one felt like seeing her again?  How right he was.  I had had my chance, thrown it away and now would never be anything but a competent pianist."

Maybe it's because I'm not an artistic genius, but straight-faced references to a "muse" (particularly a capitalized "Muse"!) induce strenuous eye-rolling.  Besides, I think it's nonsense that a truly gifted musician (or any type of artist) can so easily throw away their "chance".  Will you get rusty if you stop practicing and learning?  Sure, but what's to stop you from getting it back, if you make a serious, concerted effort?  It might be more difficult to get going again than if you hadn't stopped, because you've lost momentum, but that's true for everything and everyone in life-- not just the tortured "artistes".

--Caroline rationalizes that locals wouldn't have noticed her among all the archaeologists who'd been around during the dig, but I still think it's very unlikely that only one person (the lady with the little shop) would have recognized her when she returned-- especially since, when she does return, the vicar's wife makes such to-do over how small the village is and what an excitement it is when someone new comes along.  It's a little thing, maybe, but it kept nagging at me as I read.

--Alice is a great example of those characters who, by the end of the book, are proven to be totally bonkers (insisting she was "a sort of a goddess"?), yet somehow manage to fool everyone by seeming completely normal up until the very end.  Of course, when you live in Lovat Stacy, where practically every other character seems suspicious or downright oddball, appearing completely normal is its own kind of red flag...!  It doesn't seem realistic that the other girls would've been too cowed to say something to someone, but whatever.  I guess that sort of thing does happen, but it's frustrating to read about, because it's just so darn stupid.

--Sybil Stacy is a creepy character who gave me strong flashbacks to Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Perhaps the most interesting character in the whole book.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Winding Stair

The Winding Stair
by Jane Aiken Hodge

When the invitation came, Juana Brett was delighted. A chance to escape from the grey darkness of England. A chance to visit her happy childhood home at the Castle of the Rock, and above all the opportunity to escape the petty tyranny of her stepmother and reconnect with other family members. However, her visit to Portugal became unexpectedly dangerous-- and unexpectedly romantic...

My Reaction:
Despite a tedious start (the part set in England, which I found dull), the bulk of this novel was enjoyable.  The pace picks up a bit once the heroine relocates to Portugal, and though I'd have thought the subject (Portugal during the Napoleonic wars) unlikely to enthrall me, the historical/political aspects were handled more deftly than expected.  I wound up liking the book much more than I'd have thought, judging only from the first few pages.

If I have any complaint, it would be that my interest flagged, ever so slightly, once the romance was more or less "settled", though there was still a good deal of story to go.  Also, I was rather disappointed that we never got a fuller explanation of one character in particular (see spoiler section below).

For an old-fashioned historical romance/gothic suspense, I found this pretty good.  Don't expect brilliance or mold-breaking-- and you just might learn a thing or two about the history of Portugal (especially if, like me, you go in with an appalling ignorance of the country).

If half-stars were possible, I'd give this 3.5, but I'm unwilling to round up, this time.

Specifics with SPOILERS:
--The misogyny of the Sons of the Star was so over the top!  Combined with the clunky ceremonial flourishes, it made them seem ridiculous.  Still deadly, of course, but also just silly.

--If the Sons of the Star as a group are ridiculously anti-woman, Vasco is even more cartoonish.  It's one thing for a powerful (and egomaniacal) man of the past to think women are of inferior understanding and ability-- that I can readily believe-- but Vasco takes it to such an insane level-- far beyond the slightly amused (albeit infuriating) indifference you might expect from someone whose views have never been challenged.

His lack of respect for women is coupled with an apparent physical abhorrence for women.  It's not just Juana whom he finds repellent; he seems to have a pathological disgust of all women: "We'll need a pompous wedding ... and an heir, of course, or, better still, a couple of brats, but after that... Well, you know what I think-- what we all think of women, Brothers."  Yeah, it's safe to say that Vasco has Issues...

Strange that Vasco was able to mask his disgust for Juana until he had abducted her...  Prior to the abduction, though she knew she didn't love him, she was still affected by his rather violent embraces to the point that she seriously considered the possibility of marrying him.  Afterwards, he's still playing the role of a besotted lover, but for some reason it's no longer effective.  I guess we're meant to chalk it up to Juana's inexperience with men-- but his abrupt inability to play the obsessed suitor is weak.  He's the consummate actor until he's suddenly not.

--The author tantalizes the reader with the mystery surrounding Aunt Elvira.  First, what happened to her?  Second, though she usually seems slightly mad (or at least very eccentric), she has moments of clarity that lead one to question whether the madness is an act.  I was certain there was more to her backstory that would be revealed in the end, but that all came to nothing.  A bit disappointing.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Wylding Hall

Wylding Hall
by Elizabeth Hand

When the young members of a British acid-folk band are compelled by their manager to work on their second album, they hole up at Wylding Hall, an ancient country house with dark secrets. There they create the album that will make their reputation, but at a terrifying cost: Julian Blake, the group’s lead singer, disappears within the mansion and is never seen or heard from again.
Now, years later, the surviving musicians, along with their friends and lovers—including a psychic, a photographer, and the band’s manager—meet with a young documentary filmmaker to tell their own versions of what happened that summer. But whose story is true? And what really happened to Julian Blake?

My Reaction:
This novella is strong on atmosphere, but a little weak on story-- particularly when it comes time for a conclusion.  That seems to be a common trait for "these kinds of stories", and it's something I can overlook, to some degree-- but the ending left me more confused than satisfyingly chilled.

The atmosphere and a few creepy-crawly moments might merit four stars.  The ending was disappointingly inconclusive, though, so it ends up at three stars.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--Some reviewers don't like the long-after-the-fact interview format.  It does take away some of the suspense, since you know that the interviewees will all survive their time at Wylding Hall, but it was still pretty tense at the right moments.  There were times when I didn't really need to have the same information repeated by the different characters, though I must grudgingly admit that it lends a certain verisimilitude to the interview format/framework.

--Two or three of the male characters seemed to blend together for me.  I eventually could keep Jonno separate, but Will and Ashton might just as well have been blended into one character, as far as I was concerned.  One of them (Ashton) is supposed to be the skeptic of the group, I guess, but neither of them were distinct enough.  That's a quibble, though.  Most of the other characters were easy to keep straight.

--This book introduced me to the "Abbots Bromley Horn Dance".  Amazing that such a bizarre custom could survive all these hundreds of years!  The power of tradition!

--There are a handful of creepy incidents scattered through the book, but I never felt that they came together satisfactorily.  Sadly, there was no moment of even semi-revelation.  The closest we get to it is Will saying this: "The photos I saw in the pub-- the hunting of the wren-- the song Julian unearthed and a half-naked girl with feathers on her feet... It all adds up, doesn't it?"

...Um, no, actually.  It doesn't add up for me, at least.  Maybe I'm being dense, but-- huh?  I'd appreciate a little more to go on, here.  Is the girl the embodiment of the wrens the village hunt?  Or are the hunted wrens some type of sacrifice to keep her at bay?

Much was made of Julian's dabbling in "magick" and his obsession with different kinds of time.  His odd watch is finally found in a place where it shouldn't possibly have been able to be-- and one of his friends sees Julian and "the girl", years later, in another country, looking as though he hasn't aged a day since his disappearance.  Spooky... But what does it mean?  How does it fit in with the weird ghost/fairy-girl and the wrens?  Did he finally figure out a way to stop time or switch into a different time mode?

Did Julian somehow conjure the girl out of hiding-- intentionally or not?  She's clearly drawn to him-- both when she practically throws herself at him in the pub and when she zooms up to him in the photo shoot.  Is the girl the one responsible for the strange things that happened at Wylding Hall (such as doors that mysteriously lock and unlock on their own, never-ending hallways, etc.)?  And what in the world is the story behind the pile of wrens with missing beaks?!  (Let me guess.  The village-caught wrens are sacrifices to keep her away, and the beak is her favorite part?  Ok, only joking, but seriously-- what does it meeeaaannn?)

All those creepy, spooky, eerie moments are so thinly connected that I can't quite see what's intended.  It may all add up for some readers, but apparently my trusty spookulator is out of order, because I can't seem to crunch these numbers.

This was an enjoyable, quick read, even if I can't do the calculus.