Random Reads 2/18/21

Are You in the House Alone? by Richard Peck
Are You in the House Alone? came out in 1976 and though I totally could’ve read it when I was a teen—and thus still a member of its target audience—I never did.

Gail Osburne is a sixteen-year-old high school junior and native New Yorker who’s not at home in the quaint Connecticut village her family relocated to several years back. I knew that the plot involved Gail receiving menacing anonymous notes and phone calls, and I was expecting these events to get started quickly and the suspense to remain high throughout. But that doesn’t happen.

Instead, the story is told retroactively, so we know Gail survives. Also, obvious culprit is obvious. (I hope the reveal wasn’t intended to be a surprise, but perhaps readers were less savvy about such things in 1976.) Initially, much more of the focus is on Gail’s relationships with her parents, boyfriend, and best friend, and in particular how the latter two are in the slow process of dissolution. Eventually she receives some threatening notes and creepy phone calls, gets scared, is let down by people in positions of authority, and comes face-to-face with said obvious culprit. That happens halfway through this slim novel. The rest of the book is about Gail’s recovery from her ordeal.

I thought Are You in the House Alone? was going to be fun, suspenseful fluff, but it turned out to be fairly serious and occasionally (intentionally) infuriating. I really appreciated how Peck was able to weave in a couple of threads that seemed very random at first and make them integral to the denouement, too. Ultimately, I didn’t love the book, but I kind of… respect it, if that makes sense. It didn’t go the cheap route.

automaticThe Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
Mack Megaton is a hulking robot who was created to destroy. He developed self-determination, however, and went against his programming. Now, he’s a probationary citizen of Empire City, where mutagens and pollution have created a very diverse population. While some “biologicals” are still “norms,” others have been physically transformed (like rat-like Detective Alfredo Sanchez) and others have been changed in not-so-visible ways (like Mack’s friend, Jung, a talking gorilla with refined literary taste). Mack works as a cab driver and is trying to keep a low profile, but when his neighbors are abducted, he can’t help but try to rescue them. This gets him into all sorts of trouble, of course.

Despite its name, The Automatic Detective isn’t really much of a mystery. I suppose it’s more… sci-fi noir. Mack meets various thugs, beats some of them up, gets beat up himself, etc. Slowly, he makes progress on uncovering a huge conspiracy. At times, I felt like Martinez was a little too enamored of the gimmick he created, and places in the middle dragged a bit as a result, but the ending is pretty satisfying and overall the book was enjoyable enough, even though it’s quite far from the sort of thing I usually read.

As a final note: I really liked that Martinez limited himself when it came time to invent universe-specific profanity. Instead of the text being liberally sprinkled with words like “frell” or “frak,” the phrase “Oh, flurb” appears but once (during a moment where the meaning is 100% apparent) and made me laugh out loud.

I don’t know if I’m necessarily eager to read more by Martinez, but I’m glad I read this one.

jeeves2The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
When I read My Man Jeeves back in 2010, I was somewhat disappointed because so much of it was repetitive. While there are some common elements that recur within the eleven stories that comprise The Inimitable Jeeves, it is still so very much superior that I’d now say… forget about that first book. Start here. Go back and read My Man Jeeves for completist purposes, if that’s your inclination, but start here for the best introduction to these characters and Wodehouse’s uniquely charming and amusing writing.

First published in 1923, The Inimitable Jeeves contains a linked set of stories that typically involve affable Bertie Wooster being imposed upon by either his eternally lovesick friend Bingo Little (who is “always waylaying one and decanting his anguished soul”) or his mischief-making younger cousins, Claude and Eustace. One plot thread involves convincing Bingo’s uncle (who provides him with an allowance) to agree to Bingo marrying a waitress. Jeeves comes up with the idea to ply the uncle with romance novels featuring class differences to soften his heart, and it ends up that Bertie is compelled to go visit the old fellow and claim to be the author. In addition to containing the most elegant description of sweat I’ve ever seen—“The good old persp was bedewing my forehead by this time in a pretty lavish manner.”—this situation is referenced a few times in subsequent stories until Bingo succeeds in getting married to a different waitress who really is the author of those romance novels.

So, even though you’ve got episodic happenings, it’s rather a satisfactory conclusion. Bertie is endearing, Jeeves is competent, the writing is excellent, and it made me laugh. (I especially liked when a character was described as resembling “a sheep with a secret sorrow.”) I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on the series after the first book; now I feel as though I finally see what the fuss is all about. I’d also like to give credit to the fabulous narration by Jonathan Cecil. I’m not sure if it’s deliberate, but I hear echoes of Fry and Laurie in his performance, and I heartily approve. I will certainly seek out more unabridged versions read by him.

The Murders of Richard III by Elizabeth Peters
This is the second in the Jacqueline Kirby series of mysteries. I haven’t read the first, and wouldn’t normally begin with the second, but the book promised an English country mansion plus “fanatic devotees of King Richard III” so my usual routine flew right out the window.

Even before university lecturer Thomas Carter likened himself unto Watson, I’d noticed the similarities between how this tale is told and the Sherlock Holmes stories. We are never permitted inside Jacqueline’s head. Instead, we see her how Thomas, hopeful of one day securing her romantic affections, views her. It’s fairly interesting, actually, because Thomas’ opinion of her fluctuates, sometimes peevishly. “You drive me crazy with your arrogance and your sarcasm and your know-it-all airs,” he says at one point. And though he soon after claims “I’m no male chauvinist; I don’t mind you showing off,” the fact is that earlier he was grumbling inwardly about her feigning “girlish ignorance” to reel in mansplainers and then walloping the “unwitting victim” with a cartload of knowledge. It’s true that Jacqueline isn’t especially likeable sometimes, but for remorselessly trouncing the sexist louts she encounters throughout the book, I must commend her!

The mystery itself is somewhat bland, unfortunately. The leader of a Ricardian society has received a letter purportedly written by Elizabeth of York, which would exonerate Richard of the deaths of her brothers, the “princes in the tower.” He calls a meeting of the society, with each attendee costumed as one of the historical personages involved, and summons the press, planning to unveil his find with much fanfare. But someone begins playing practical jokes on the Ricardians reminiscent of the fates of the people they are pretending to be. The book isn’t a long one, and soon the pranks start coming right on the heels of one another. Because of the swift pace—and some shallow characterization—the solution is rather anti-climactic.

Still, while I’m not sure I’ll seek out any more Jacqueline Kirby mysteries, this was overall a decent read.

A Perfect Match by Jill McGown
The series of books featuring Detective Inspector Lloyd (whose first name is a secret for now) and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill begins with a short yet enjoyable mystery in which a wealthy young widow is found dead in a small English town on property she’d just inherited from her recently deceased husband. Unlike some mysteries of which I am fond, there’s no preamble where readers get to know the victim or the circumstances of their life. Instead, immediately there’s a policeman discovering the body and then Lloyd turns up to question the victim’s next of kin. This same lack of character development hampers the romantic tension between Lloyd and Hill, leaving me with no idea what motivated Hill to finally decide to act on her feelings for him, betraying her marriage vows in the process.

The mystery itself is interesting enough, however, involving long-married Helen and Donald Mitchell who have ties to both the victim, Julia—her late husband was Donald’s older brother and Helen thinks they were having an affair—and chief suspect, Chris, originally a friend of Donald’s who has fallen in love with Helen. I can’t claim to have mustered anything more than a mild curiosity as to what the outcome would be, but neither did I guess the specifics, so that was good. I liked the interrogation scenes, too.

McGown’s writing had some fun moments. I loved the super-evocative imagery of Lloyd telling Hill that her new perm makes her look like Kevin Keegan. I also really appreciated a recurring bit where each chapter ends with the point of view of wildlife. When Chris is eventually brought in by the police, his arrest is depicted from a bird’s perspective, for example. There are also ducks, a moth, a fly, a cat… I don’t know if this device recurs in later books in the series, but I look forward to finding out.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
This is the second mystery/thriller I’ve read in which a single mom who is a lawyer with a cold and unfeeling mother of her own attempts to work out the mystery of what happened to a family member (the other being Girl in the Dark by Marion Pauw). Is that some kind of trend these days?

Kate Baron has a demanding job at a swanky firm, but she’s trying her best to be a good mom to her fifteen-year-old bookworm daughter, Amelia. She’s shocked to get a call from Grace Hall, the prestigious private school Amelia attends, saying that her daughter has been accused of cheating, and by the time she makes her way to the school, Amelia has evidently jumped to her death from the school roof. The police are only too happy to classify her death as a suicide, but when Kate gets a text that says “Amelia didn’t jump,” she starts trying to put together the pieces of what happened.

Reconstructing Amelia has quite a few problems. Despite her better judgment (and a promise to her best friend), Amelia joins a clique of bitchy girls at school who end up publicly humiliating her and trying to get her expelled when she falls in love with someone deemed off-limits. It’s hard to muster sympathy for what she ends up going through when one remembers the cruel prank she was willing to pull on someone else as part of the initiation process (largely kept off-camera to keep us from disliking her too much, I guess). We’re repeatedly told about the great relationship Amelia and her mom share, but never shown it. The subplot about Amelia’s dad is the literary equivalent of wilted lettuce. And the fact that the new detective who gets assigned to the case allows Kate to question suspects is absolutely ludicrous.

And yet, I couldn’t hate the book, largely because of Amelia’s friend, Sylvia. For much of the book she comes across as shallow and self-absorbed, but when Amelia really needs her, she’s there. She gives Amelia this tour of “great moments at Grace Hall” to cheer up her impressive pal, right before breaking down about her own legitimate pain. I never would’ve thought at the outset that I would have such immense sympathy for Sylvia, but I do. I find myself hoping that she’ll be okay.

shutterislandShutter Island by Dennis Lehane
It sure is nice going into a book unspoiled, particularly one as twisty as Shutter Island. I was quite happy with the book as it began, with U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule taking the ferry to Shutter Island to track down a patient missing from Ashcliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It’s late summer 1954, and these guys are manly but accessible, and surprisingly funny. Consider this relatiely early exchange that cracked me up:

Pretentious Doctor: *makes remarks on the lives of violence the marshals must lead*
Chuck: Wasn’t raised to run, Doc.
Pretentious Doctor: Ah, yes. Raised. And who did raise you?
Teddy: Bears.

For a while, all seems straightforward. Then Teddy confides to Chuck that he’s actually come there looking for a patient named Andrew Laediss, who was responsible for setting the fire that killed Teddy’s wife two years before. Gradually, one starts to doubt everything (and there was a point where all of the uncertainty got to be a little much for me) but the ultimate conclusion is a very satisfactory one.

Why Did You Lie? by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Set in Iceland, Why Did You Lie? starts out with three different storylines taking place a few days apart. The first involves a photographer on a helicopter journey to take pictures of a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of the ocean, the second is about a policewoman whose journalist husband has recently attempted suicide, and the third is about a family who returns from a house swap with an American couple to find some of their stuff missing and weird footage on the security camera. Of course, as the book progresses, these storylines converge, and it’s pretty neat when the police activity the helicopter flew over in chapter one turns out to be almost the culmination of the policewoman’s plot thread.

For some reason, I can’t help wondering how Ruth Rendell might’ve written this book. I think Rendell would’ve done a lot more with characterization, for one thing. There’s certainly some here, especially for the anxious husband who struggles to make his wife admit something really has gone wrong with their houseguests, but the primary concern seems to be getting on with the suspenseful action. Quickly, each plot features some kind of creepy lurker and then ominous notes (variations on the “why did you lie?” theme) figure in to all three, as well. Nina, the policewoman, digs around and talks to people and works out that everything connects to a supposed suicide from thirty years ago.

The result is certainly an entertaining book, but not one I could really love. One major issue I had is being able to predict something very significant. The number of characters who could’ve been angry enough about the 30-year-old lies in question to terrorize people in the present is very small. And once the existence of a certain person is oh-so-casually mentioned two-thirds through the book, I thought, “Oh, well, it’s them, then.” And then a little later, I figured out which of the characters it must be and I was right. This made for an anticlimactic ending that was clearly meant to be a shocking one. Also, I would’ve liked to have cared more that one character ends the novel poised to move on with life but, in reality, still in jeopardy.

I still would read more by this author, though.

Wait for What Will Come by Barbara Michaels: B-

Book description:
The last of an ancient Cornish clan, Carla Tregellas has inherited her historic ancestral home: a massive mansion looming high up on the jagged cliffs of Cornwall. From the moment Carla takes possession of the grand manor she feels right at home, warmly welcomed by everyone—except the strange and secretive housekeeper, Mrs. Pendennis, who warns the new owner of the tragic, inevitable fate that will surely befall her if she does not depart at once. But Carla cannot leave, for the unseen bonds of a dark family curse are beginning to tighten… and a demon lover waits.

I’m not sure what it is, but sometimes I just crave something by Barbara Michaels.

Like most of the books by Michaels that I have read, Wait for What Will Come features a plucky heroine and an old house. Carla Tregellas, a math teacher from Boston, is surprised to inherit a somewhat decrepit mansion from a distant relation in Cornwall. Her initial impulse is to sell the place, but once she sees a photo, she’s smitten and decides to at least pay a visit before putting it up on the market.

Upon practically the moment of her arrival, Carla is acquainted with the family legend, which says that every 200 years a young woman of the family is claimed by some sort of sea demon. The last occurrence was exactly 200 years ago and, wouldn’t you know it, Carla looks a great deal like her ancestor who went missing at that time. Carla’s an unimaginative and practical sort and discounts the myth, but strange things start happening—seaweed in her room, a distorted portrait—that soon have her on edge.

A bevy of attractive men happens to be handy, and most of them have the hots for Carla (the exception being the vicar, who probably has the vicarly equivalent). The fellows help her look into the origins of the legend and execute timely rescues, but most seem to want to get her out of town in a hurry. After the characters spend most of the book sightseeing, socializing, and/or engaging in lackadaisical research, all of a sudden they’re confessing to dastardly deeds and revealing unconvincing romantic inclinations, and it all seems to come out of nowhere.

In retrospect, the plot’s pretty thin, but I liked the setting and the characters enough that I enjoyed their interactions, until Michaels realized she’d better wrap things up and everything went a little crazy. Still, the final resolution is satisfying enough and I’m happy that a cat got to be a hero, in its way. This isn’t the best by Michaels that I’ve read, but it was sufficiently diverting.

Vanish with the Rose by Barbara Michaels: B+

From the back cover:
Diana Reed has much to hide when she arrives at the Nicholsons’ 18th-century estate. Masquerading as a landscape architect specializing in “ancient” roses, she’s hired by the eccentric couple to restore the gardens, but her real interest lies in the manor’s more recent history.

Sinister scenarios ensue at the Nicholsons’ estate. Ghostly music echoes in the halls. The smell of roses haunts empty rooms. Diana must hurry if she is to solve her highly personal mystery before she becomes another of the garden’s well-kept secrets.

While I definitely enjoyed reading Vanish with the Rose, it was quite a slow read for me. At first, all we know about Diana Reed is that she’s pretending to be an expert on roses in order to gain access to property newly acquired by a pair of lottery winners, Emily and Charles Nicholson. Her true agenda is not mentioned for some time, but it eventually comes out after she befriends the Nicholsons’ housekeeper, Mary Jo, and all of a sudden things change quite a bit.

As it turns out, Diana is there investigating the disappearance of her brother, Brad, who had worked for the previous owner, an old woman notorious for her ornery disposition. The handling of this revelation is interesting in that several members of the cast, whom we’ve already met without suspicion, are suddenly revealed as potential suspects. Meanwhile, ghostly music disturbs Diana’s sleep and she experiences several visions from what seems to be someone else’s perspective. After the Nicholsons head off on vacation while landscaping work proceeds, Diana, Mary Jo, Walt (the head landscaper), and Andy (Emily’s son) remain at the centuries-old home where they look for leads on Brad and try to avoid Mary Jo’s abusive ex-husband, Larry.

So, essentially what we have here is a supernatural cozy mystery, with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure. As I said, I enjoyed reading the book, but the narrative would meander something awful. Things do come together tidily enough at the end, with some fun misleads and twists along the way, but I can’t help but feel some liberal editing would’ve produced a tighter story.

I have no complaints at all about the characters, though, since I liked them all quite a lot. Diana has a lot of baggage from her parents, and takes some time coming out of her shell, but her new friendships help her to achieve this. Walt is gruff and sensible, Mary Jo is “determinedly rational,” and Andy is one of those fellows who appears glib and irresponsible, but is actually dependable in a pinch. The interplay between them is amusing, and while Diana has chemistry with both the guys, I’m quite happy about how things ultimately turn out in this regard.

Even though the story drags in places, Vanish with the Rose is a solidly entertaining tale, and definitely one worth reading.

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters: B

From the back cover:
Amelia Peabody, that indomitable product of the Victorian age, embarks on her debut Egyptian adventure armed with unshakable self-confidence, a journal to record her thoughts, and, of course, a sturdy umbrella. On her way to Cairo, Amelia rescues young Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who has been abandoned by her scoundrel lover. Together the two women sail up the Nile to an archeological site run by the Emerson brothers—the irascible but dashing Radcliffe and the amiable Walter.

Soon their little party is increased by one—one mummy, that is, and a singularly lively example of the species. Strange visitations, suspicious accidents, and a botched kidnapping convince Amelia that there is a plot afoot to harm Evelyn. Now Amelia finds herself up against an unknown enemy—and perilous forces that threaten to make her first Egyptian trip also her last…

Amelia Peabody is a proud and independent 32-year-old spinster who has decided to put her inheritance to use by doing some traveling. After coming to the rescue of Evelyn, a young woman who’d collapsed in the streets of Rome, the two of them travel to Egypt where they meet the Emerson brothers, do some excavating, and are harassed by a supernatural menace.

While I liked most of the characters as well as Amelia’s blindness to her growing feelings for the elder Emerson brother and Evelyn’s amused awareness of same (You’ve heard of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Well, this is Pride and Prejudice and Mummies), I found the mystery plot of the novel to be incredibly obvious. In fact, very early on I predicted to a friend (who’d already read it) not only the identity of the culprit but some of his/her specific nefarious deeds. Later on, Amelia herself confirmed my impression by saying, “The plot now seemed so obvious I felt a child ought to have detected it.”

Still, the flaws in the plot have not dissuaded me from continuing with the rest of the Amelia Peabody books. The first volumes of mystery series are seldom the strongest, so I assume some improvement is in order. And besides that, I simply want to read more about Amelia and Emerson and their love, which seems to be equal parts withering scorn and impassioned smooching.

Be Buried in the Rain by Barbara Michaels: B-

From the back cover:
There are secrets buried at Maidenwood—dark secrets that span generations. Medical student Julie Newcomb, who once spent four miserable childhood years at this rundown Virginia plantation, would rather not resurrect ancient memories, or face her own fears.

Yet Julie cannot refuse her relatives’ plea that she spend her summer caring for the bedridden—but still malevolent—family matriarch. Reluctantly, Julie agrees, praying that life at Maidenwood will not be as bleak as before. From the first, though, Julie finds Maidenwood a haunted place, not merely echoing with grim reminders, but filled with dark secrets that will become part of her life even today.

Med student Julie isn’t thrilled when she’s asked to spend her summer caring for the cruel grandmother with whom she spent four dismal years—years that are strangely blank in her memory. She complies to spare her mother the thankless task, and ends up in the middle of a local mystery. Shortly before her arrival, the skeletons of a woman and infant were found on a road cutting through the family property, known as Maidenwood, and Julie and her family are besieged by reporters, archaeologists, and psychic anthropologists who are interested in the story.

Although I enjoyed reading Be Buried in the Rain, there are several things about the way that it’s written that puzzle me. For example, nothing really happens for about 80% of the book. It registers about a two on the suspense-o-meter. Oh, little things occur that do turn out to be important later, but mostly it’s Julie coping with her hateful grandmother, complaining (rather bitchily) about a co-helper’s cooking, caring for a stray dog, and bantering with and/or eventually rekindling a romance with her ex-boyfriend, an archaeologist who’s been given permission to dig at Maidenwood in an attempt to locate the burial site from which the skeletons were presumably exhumed. Things finally start to move near the end after Julie begins work on reconstructing the face of the adult skeleton based on the skull—apparently someone doesn’t want an identification to be made.

The ending leaves rather a lot to be desired, though. One question is not answered particularly well—how the kooky psychic manages to unearth a genuine archaeological find—and a couple of others not at all, including how the skeletons wound up in the middle of the road. Although the book is grounded in reality throughout, at the very end, Michaels throws in a random dollop of supernatural hijinks, with Julie believing she’s been in communion with the dead woman’s spirit and putting forth the theory that each year, the skeletons pop up again and have to be reburied by the party responsible for their deaths. I’d more easily buy this explanation if there were any notion of supernatural doings anywhere other than the final ten pages or so of the novel.

Still, though I have my complaints I still found Be Buried in the Rain to be reasonably entertaining and expect that I shall read more by Barbara Michaels in future.

Someone in the House by Barbara Michaels: B+

Book description:
An English Gothic mansion, transported stone by stone to the isolated Pennsylvania hills, Grayhaven Manor calls to Anne and Kevin. Here is the ideal summer retreat—a perfect location from which to write the book they have long planned together. But there are distractions in the halls and shadows of the looming architectural wonder luring them from their work—for they are not alone. Something lives on here from Grayhaven’s shocking past—something beautiful, powerful, and eerily seductive—unlocking the doors of human desire, of fear… and unearthly passion.

Someone in the House was a recommendation of sorts from Margaret, not coming from her personally but from an archival index. It’s the first book I’ve read by Barbara Michaels, who also writes under the name Elizabeth Peters.

When Anne arrives at Grayhaven, her intention is to work on a literature textbook with her coworker, Kevin, but a feeling of complacency seems to settle in, and little work actually gets accomplished. This air of contentment lingers even after Kevin’s Aunt Bea notices strange noises coming from her nephew’s room which lead into an investigation into possible spiritual phenomena within the house. The ensuing investigation is pretty interesting, at least at first, with plenty of nifty cameras, crypts, and brittle old documents. It does drag a little in spots, though, and by the end, when Anne keeps talking about how she’s figured it out but yet doesn’t divulge the answer, the result is irritating rather than riveting.

Anne herself is an interesting character. Fiercely feminist, she bristles at the notion that she might wish to cancel her own career-minded summer plans in order to accompany her current boyfriend on a trip overseas. Her ardent independence and lack of concern for his opinion of her actions are refreshing. After occasionally enduring weak-willed female protagonists that make me want to scream, Anne is a welcome change. I also like that she’s a feminist without being portrayed as the extreme, man-hating variety.

The rest of the characters, though, are not very interesting. Anne’s coworker and eventual love interest, Kevin, hasn’t got much of a personality and I never bought the romance that develops between them, though the reasons for that are made evident by the end of the book. The conclusion itself could’ve been more climactic, but it does provide a new light with which to see the events of the book, so I suppose that technically qualifies as a twist.

All in all, I enjoyed the book. It was fun and not too long and I’d probably read more by Michaels in this vein.