Dark Harvest – Norman Partridge

Peter Straub, a writer I have admired for several decades said that Norman Partridge  is “probably the most exciting and original voice in horror literature to have appeared in the last decade.”  Coming from the man who wrote Floating Dragon and Ghost Story, two books I read with the lights totally on, this is high praise.

An unnamed Midwestern town is cursed. Every Halloween the October Boy (or Ol’ Hacksaw Face or Sawtooth Jack) rises from the cornfields and heads to town where all the eligible teenage boys try to kill him. They’ve been denied food for the past few days and the October Boy has a gut full of candy.  This year, Pete McCormick is one of those boys. He’s had a rough few months: his mother has died of cancer, his father’s grief led him to the bottle and that led to the unemployment line. Killing the October Boy is Pete’s way out of town because that’s what the prize is: a way out of the one-horse town he lives in and free everything for his dad and little sister.

What Pete doesn’t know is that the October Boy is on a quest, too. He has to make it to the church by midnight and so he’s every bit as determined as Pete. Neither of them know the town’s dark history or its secrets, though.

I liked Dark Harvest. Was it the scariest book I’ve ever read? Uh, no. It was unusual, though. Creative. And strangely, I sort of felt myself rooting (no pun intended – but you’ll have to read the book to know what I mean) for both Pete and the October Boy. It’s a short book, you could read it in a couple hours if you were so inclined. Save it for Halloween night.

 

AngelMonster – Veronica Bennett

Veronica Bennett reimagines the life of Mary Shelley, author of the novel Frankenstein, in her novel AngelMonster. It is 1814 and Mary is a smart but dreamy 16 year old. She and her sister, Jane, often imagine finding true love with a poet because  as Mary remarks, “a poet is the only acceptable sort of lover these days.”

Jane and I had often discussed the possibility of falling in love with a poet. If poetry was any measure of a man, we had observed, everything we longed for in a lover – romance, desire, spirit, soul – was clearly contained in it.

Into Mary’s life (well, her father’s bookshop) walks Percy Shelley. Not yet the super-star poet he was to become he is nevertheless known as someone to watch and certainly meets Mary’s criteria for a lover. And lovers they become, even though Shelley is already (at the tender age of 20) married with children.

AngelMonster is a thoroughly modern tale. It’s kind of like reading a memoir from a current celebrity. It drops names ( Lord Byron and Polidori are companions of Shelley’s) and is full of dalliances and intrigues and twisted love triangles. Young readers, especially those who dismiss poetry and classic fiction as boring, might be intrigued by the flesh and blood people who actually lived and wrote these works that have endured.

Mary herself is an interesting character.  Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was one of the first feminists and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. (Wollstonecraft died a few days after Mary was born.)  Her father  was the writer and political journalist,  William Godwin. Mary herself is clearly intelligent, but youth makes her romantic and dreamy. Still, she wrote Frankenstein when she was just 21. As Bennett writes her, she is young but determined. Her affair with Percy is ill-advised, but she loves him and sticks with him even when he doesn’t deserve it. She is a thoroughly modern creation.

I think AngelMonster would be a great companion to a  young adult’s study  of the works of Byron,  and both Percy and Mary Shelley.

One Day – David Nicholls

One Day was the first book of our book club’s 2011-12 reading season (and our 12th year together!) After last year’s (mostly) snooze-a-palooza, it was terrific to come back to some current fiction. One Day comes with a little bit of hype, but I think it totally delivers on its promise.

Emma and Dexter  meet on the eve of their graduation from the University of Edinburgh in 1988. Although Emma has admired Dex from afar, this is their first real encounter and she is totally smitten. Although they come from different worlds (Emma is working class and Dexter comes from money) their one (unconsummated) night begins a friendship that we see in snapshots over twenty years. The beauty of Nicholl’s novel is that we revisit Dex and Emma on the same day, July 15th, and sometimes threads of their lives are left dangling.

In the beginning, both Emma and Dexter suffer from post-college malaise. What are we going to do with our lives? Dexter travels and Emma writes him long letters. He falls into a plum job in TV production. Emma works at a crappy tex-mex restaurant, then becomes a teacher. Through it all they prop each other up and tear each other down in the manner of friends who might be more if only they could get their act together.

This is one of the things Nicholls handles so beautifully in this novel. He juggles their lives – their various liaisons and miscommunications- with such finesse. Even when Dexter is acting like a complete prat we see exactly what Emma sees in him. When Emma is perhaps too serious, we just want to shake her. They are beautifully realized characters, flawed and heartbreakingly fragile.

But Nicholls has even more in store for the reader. The book’s denouement adds a layer of richness to the story, bringing us full circle and allowing the reader to consider the infinite possibilities inherent in just one meeting. Oh, the difference a day makes.

I loved this book.

The Housekeeper – Melanie Wallace

Melanie Wallace’s novel, The Housekeeper, was longlisted for The Orange Prize. For about the first 100 pages, I couldn’t figure out why. The story itself – if the synopsis is to be believed – sounded intriguing: When Jamie Hall finds a boy tied to a tree and cuts him loose, she can have no idea of the desperate chain of events her act of humanity will trigger.

Jamie is 17. When her mother dies of cancer, she leaves home with her dog and heads for Dyers Corner – the only place she has any connection to; a place her grandmother, while alive, lived. She has nothing and she seems to want nothing. She falls into a strange relationship with Damon, a married man who eventually returns to his pregnant wife. She becomes housekeeper for an elderly photographer, Margaret. Galen, a trapper, pines for her. It is winter and the stark landscape adds to Jamie’s isolation.

The boy Jamie cuts loose is wrong. “He thought of nothing in words and so gave no thought to those things he saw before him…” Jamie’s act of kindness begins a series of violent acts that culminate in a tragedy that seemed inevitable, but still left my mouth hanging open.

It took me a while to warm up to Wallace’s story and the way it was written, but once I fell into its rhythms, I loved Jamie. She is a smart and resilient character who seems to accept her lot in life without complaint. But her life is grim. And so is Wallace’s story. Spring never comes for these characters, even those who deserve it most.

Body Surfing – Anita Shreve

I have been an Anita Shreve fan for several years – well, okay, decades. I read her first novel, Eden Close back in the 70s when it first came out and remember really liking it.  Her novel The Pilot’s Wife was an Oprah pick and, thus, huge. But I’m partial to the quieter novels: Where or When, The Last Time They Met.

Body Surfing is the story of Sydney, a once-divorced, once-widowed woman who comes to live on the New Hampshire coast to tutor the beautiful but intellectually challenged Julie, youngest daughter of icy matriarch Mrs. Edwards and kind architect, Mr. Edwards. Her summer at the seashore is disrupted by the arrival of Julie’s older brothers, Ben and Jeff. Soon, Sydney is caught in the undertow of the strange and antagonistic relationship between the brothers.

I found the novel odd and oddly compelling. Shreve unfurls Sydney’s story in short elliptical passages, layering Sydney’s  day-to-day routine with memories of her divorce and dead husband. It’s hard to say what she is searching for because most of the time she isn’t even aware of it. Perhaps she is looking for family – but the Edward’s have issues of their own despite the appearance of perfection. Whatever she is looking for, it is complicated and there aren’t any easy answers.

Shreve is a good writer, but I wouldn’t say that Body Surfing is her best book. Of course, even on a bad day, she’s still a cut above the rest.

The Letters – Luanne Rice & Joseph Monninger

An epistle is a letter sent to a person or group of people that is generally elegant,  formal and didactic in nature. This is the form of Luanne Rice and Joseph Monninger’s collaborative novel, The Letters.

Sam and Hadley West have lost their only child, Paul, in a plane crash in Alaska, where he had gone to teach. The loss of their son throws their marriage into turmoil and they are now on opposite sides of continent waiting for their divorce to become final. Hadley, an artist, is holed up in a little cottage on an island off the coast of Maine. Sam, a sports journalist, has gone to Alaska in an effort to recreate Paul’s last days and see the site of the plane crash. The Letters (no surpise here) is the shared correspondence between the two as they work through their individual grief and slowly make their way back to each other.

In theory, this sort of novel is fraught with problems from the get-go. First of all, it’s all tell. Dear Hadley, today I did this. Dear Sam, today I thought this. I mean, people don’t write this sort of letter anymore, do they? Geesh, I don’t think people write letters at all anymore and I say this as a life-long letter writer who might write a half dozen letters a year now- most of them scribbled notes. So, as a reader, if you can get past the conceit, you then have to decide whether the novel has the emotional resonance the topic deserves.

I liked The Letters. Hadley and Sam were two people faced with an unbearable tragedy. Their letters allow them to work through their grief, unload some of their anxiety and face up to past mistakes. It also allows them the opportunity (and the reader, too) to trace the trajectory of their lives – from the moment they met to this place they now find themselves…where they need each other more than anything and yet make the very human mistake of pushing each other away.

In less competent hands, The Letters might have been a hot mess, but Rice and Monninger do an admirable job of making Sam and Hadley  people with real flaws and their story should be relatable to anyone who has ever lost  a child or almost walked away from the very person they need most.

Song of Kali – Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons’ novel Song of Kali was first published in 1985. At the time, Simmons was not the  well-known writer he is today – he had a few published short stories under his belt, but that’s about it. Song of Kali was the winner of the World Fantasy Award and received universal priase as a novel as “harrowing and goulish as anyone could wish” (Locus) and “an absolutely harrowing experience” (F. Paul Wilson).

“Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist,” narrator Bobby Luczak says. He’s talking about Calcutta. Bobby, a  poet and editor (with his partner, Abe) of a literary magazine called Other Voices is being sent to India to retrieve a manuscript by an important Indian writer, M. Das. Das is presumed dead: he’s been missing for years. Bobby takes his wife, Amrita (who was born in New Dehli, but left for England when she was seven) and their infant daughter, Victoria.

Although Bobby lives in New York City, Calcutta is unlike any place he’s ever been. The heat, the poverty, the stench:

Rotting residential slums gave way to larger, even more decayed-looking buildings. There were few street lights. Vague flickers of heat lightning were reflected in the deep pools of black water that filled the intersections…the buildings seemed ancient beyond age, decayed remnants of some forgotten millennium – some pre-human age – for the shadows, angles, apertures, and emptiness did not fit the architecture of man. Yet, on every second or third floor there were open-windowed glimpses of humanity inhabiting these druidic shambles: bare bulbs swinging, bobbing heads, peeled walls with plaster rotting off the rib-bones of the building…the sight of sheeted figures lying like corpses in the sidewalk shadows.

From the moment Bobby and Amrita arrive in Calcutta life as they’ve known it as intellectuals is tested. Perhaps it is the heat; perhaps it is the lack of those conveniences they’ve always taken for granted, but Bobby’s quest for Das’ lost manuscript takes him to the edge of sanity. Secret meetings, whispered stories and Kali – the Goddess of death- all contribute to the claustrophobic atmosphere Simmons does such a terrific job with. There are some truly heart-pounding moments in this book.

But – this is not a horror novel in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s horrific, but ultimately the truly horrible thing that happens to Luczak’s family is not supernatural. And as we all know, men are  the most evil beings we’ll ever encounter in our lifetime.

So, Song of Kali is atmospheric, creepy and strangely affecting but not in the ways you might expect.

Adultery for Beginners – Sarah Duncan

Jane Green (author of books like The Beach House and Promises to Keep) says Sarah Duncan’s novel Adultery for Beginners is “completely engrossing. Like having an affair with (thankfully) none of the guilt.” I find that endorsement sort of strange, really. Like  we all dream about having affairs or something. Is there something titillating about them?

Duncan’s novel tells the story of  Isabel and Neil. They’ve been married for a while, living the ex-pat life because of Neil’s job as an engineer and have only recently returned home to England with their children, Katie and Michael. Isabel has been a devoted wife and mother, but now that she’s back in England and her children are a little older, she’s decided that she wants to work, perhaps in an office, filing.

“Darling, it’s easy to see it’s years since you’ve been in an office. No one does filing anymore; it’s all on computer,” is her husband’s useful response to that notion.

But Isabel does get a break, through a casual conversation with another mother, and soon she finds herself working for Patrick, a gorgeous egomaniac who somehow manages to find Isabel devastatingly attractive even though Isabel herself feels rather frumpy.

The lesson here: all affairs end badly. Yes, in the beginning, it’s all exciting and sexy but Isabel is not unattached. She has responsibilities which soon get short shrift as she spends her afternoons having wild sex with Patrick.  It doesn’t take Isabel very long to figure out that in order to have what she thinks she wants, she’s going to have to give up everything she already has. It’s certainly not a new dilemma, but Duncan does a good job of making Isabel sympathetic, especially to readers of a certain age.

And Neil, as it turns out, is not the man scorned and that opens up a whole other set of problems. If I have one niggle about the book it’s that the suffering and recriminations – when  it comes – isn’t really realistic. And Isabel, for all her hard-won freedom as she works out her issues and takes the steps necessary to find the woman she left behind in order to be a wife and mother, falls rather too quickly, if not exactly into the arms of another man, into a man-like safety net. That said, Adultery for Beginners is entertaining and well-written.

Still Missing – Chevy Stevens

Beautiful real estate agent Annie O’Sullivan is just finishing up an open house when her world comes crashing down. That’s when David arrives, begging for an opportunity to see the house before she packs up. David, however, isn’t what he seems and Annie’s life is about to get ugly. David abducts Annie and holds her captive for  many months in an isolated cabin in the woods.

This is Chevy Stevens’ ( who is very beautiful, btw – not that it matters, but she is) first novel and in many ways, it’s a doozy. The first person narrative alternates between sessions with Annie’s shrink where she recounts the details of her horrific captivity and the  details of her arduous journey back to emotional health.

I found Still Missing quite a gripping book. Annie is no shrinking violet. During her time in the cabin she is constantly trying to outmanoeuvre David – not an easy task because he’s batshit crazy. Annie’s fear is palpable, but equally convincing is her desire to stay alive and it’s that motivation that keeps the story humming along.

What didn’t work so well for me was the novel’s resolution.  I’m one of those people who doesn’t need the neat and tidy ending, loose ends gathered into a orderly bow. Likely most readers won’t be bothered by how it all ties up because the mystery of who orchestrated Annie’s abduction isn’t really what’s facinating about Still Missing.

The Cloud of Unknowing – Thomas H. Cook

It was bound to happen sooner or later;  my first Cook novel to elicit a lukewarm reaction. That’s not to say it was horrible; I don’t actually think it’s possible for Thomas H. Cook to write a horrible novel. The Cloud of Unknowing was a bit of a bust for me, though.

David and Diana Sears were raised by their brilliant but scizophrenic father.  Now they are adults and they carry all the baggage from that often difficult childhood. David is a married lawyer with a teenage daughter. Diana is also married, with a young son who suffers from mental illness. We meet David as he sits in an interrogation room at the local police station. Diana’s young son, Jason,  has drowned and Diana blames her husband, Mark.  More than blames him; Diana thinks Mark has murdered their son.

The Cloud of Unknowing cleverly weaves David’s deposition  and the backstory necessary to make Diana’s story both believable and suspect. David is, as many of Cook’s protagonists are, an average man – honest and hard working.  This novel has less to do with the mystery surrounding  Jason’s death, and more to do with David’s feelings of helplessness as Diana’s fears about Mark grow and as she pulls other people into her orbit.

I can’t fault Cook’s writing. As always, I turned the pages quickly. The Cloud of Unknowing  just didn’t have either the emotional payoff or the clever twist I’ve come to expect from Cook’s novels.  My ho-hum feelings about this novel in no way undermine my deep admiration for Cook’s work. I intend to read every single one of his novels: I love him that much.