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.