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Houses of Stone by Barbara Michaels
#1
Sad 
[Contains no spoilers, but warning: rant follows!]

This was the first Barbara Michaels book I've read and I must say I was sorely disappointed.

I seem to recall this book being reviewed here before and that the reviews were mostly positive. I admit to bewilderment.

First, I don't understand how this book qualifies as a Gothic. The atmosphere is decidedly mundane (if it exists at all), and while the book-within-a-book is a Gothic novel (and a poor example of one at that), nothing about the actual story or atmosphere was idiomatic to the genre. Yes, there is an old house, but it's there as a prop rather than as a character, about as substantial as a painted cardboard box, and lacks any appeal or romance.

Second, the main character, Karen, is a boring, whiny, entitled little brat of a protagonist, annoying and totally unlikable. Most of the other characters in the book were equally unlikable, with the possible exception of Simon, the bookseller, whom I despised only slightly less.

I was surprised to see a publication date of 1993 for this book, as the tiresome and unremitting tone of academic feminism that ululates through it seemed more fitting for 1977. Does Barbara Michaels get out much? Her perceptions of her chosen setting seem warped, to say the least. I found it hard to believe that Karen had any friends, she was so constantly offputting and rude. But then so were her friends, all of whom seemed carbon copies of herself at varying ages and degrees of militancy. Reading conversations between them, I could hardly tell one character from another. And at any rate I felt that Karen wasn't really interested in friendship, she was really looking for someone to take the chip off her shoulder and force-feed it to her. This never happened, adding to my disappointment in the book. I was really hoping she would fall off a cliff at the end.

As Dorothy Parker wrote, this is not a book to be tossed aside lightly -- it should be thrown with great force. Lousy story (nothing happens, really, except a weak palimpsest about a fictitious early Gothic novel so bad it makes Bulwer-Lytton look like Proust), lousy characters, lousy dialogue (the "repartee" is not even clever, much less witty), no atmosphere, no romance (the heroine is about as cozy as a hermit crab with a toothache), no chemistry, no style to speak of. Gahhhh, this was a horrid excuse for a book.

Why, again, is this author popular?

If this is a case of hit-or-miss, I'll keep my mind ajar in case anyone can recommend a real winner from Michaels. Otherwise I'd tend to agree with Bellatrix's rule of sticking to pre-1976.
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#2
I don't remember this book (though I am sure I have read it) but I do recall that Michaels' books went downhill during the 90s...she no longer writes under this name (she is also the highly successful mystery novelist Elizabeth Peters.) I remember that a number of her later books featured heroines with bad attitudes and otherwise dislikable characters. I'm slowly working my way re reading some of her early books. Someone might correct me but I think the first two, Master of Black Tower and Sons of the Wolf are the only true Gothic romances. I just finished her third, Ammie, Come Home which is a tale of seances and ghostly possession, and am now on Prince of Darkness, witch cults in modern day (1970) New England. Her output vacillates between Suspense and Ghost Stories with a little dab of romance along the way. I would wager to say that her popularity is due to the strong supernatural element in a number of books as well as the ghost stories (The Crying Child, Here I Stay, Walker In Shadows). When they are good they are VERY good (if you like that sort of thing - which I do). Her later output, Smoke and Mirrors, Search the Shadows, Shattered Silk, etc, were not very memorable to me.
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#3
I'll add my review in this thread instead of the older one, which was a lot about feminism and Michaels' books in general.

I thought it a very good book. Not the stereotypical gothic romance, but very refreshing. The gothic elements are there, but they're not where you would expect them to be. The heroine, Karen, is a literary scholar who gets her hands on an old manuscript by a female author writing a contemporary gothic romance. Karen had published an earlier find of a little book of poems by this author and is very excited to be able to learn more about her. She is a feminist herself and is all for women being able to do things men had kept for themselves for ages and ages. Karen gets help from her friend Peggy, a history professor at the same university Karen works at. Both travel to Virginia where they hope to find the house that was portrayed in the manuscript, and possibly the name of the author herself. Karen thinks the book may have been autobiographical to some extent. It's very interesting to see how both Karen and Peggy start searching through old books, records and the locations and eventually come up with the answers they need. The house they find is totally empty, unfortunately, but they get their chance at going through the contents when everything is auctioned off. It's like treasure hunting.
In the meantime they get to know several local people, some likeable and some not. There is a a love interest, but only very slightly. I liked that a lot. I was far more interest to find out about this manuscript and its author.
Karen's other friends show up now and then as well and I didn't think they were boring, whiny or rude at all. They didn't mince words and said exactly what they thought without sugarcoating. I like reading about or seeing people who aren't afraid to speak their mind and don't care about being liked or not. I suppose I wish I could be more like that myself.
At one time Karen is coerced by her landlady to hold a speech for the literary society on early lady authors and instead of keeping it low profile, Karen shocks the elderly townsfolk by speaking of "The pen as penis". I confess I was shocked as well at first, as I would never have dared offend other people like that and also I would have kept in mind that it's better to stay friendly towards people who might help you in some way in your research, but after thinking about it I realized I should commend Karen for doing this. She didn't want to hold the lecture in the first place and the landlady was an obnoxious person so why should she try to please her? The lecture wasn't really vulgar; Karen had held it several times before.

Other things I liked:
The little quotes at the start of each chapter.
That the manuscript was truly awful, which a lot of the early gothic romances are IMHO, but they don't get criticized because of their status in the genre.
The way the manuscript ended, or didn't end. The way it was partly autobiographical and you were told another, true, story as well.
The house. Though it's an ugly, empty shell, I loved walking through it together with Karen.
The fact that the heroine had friends! So often heroines - in general even, not just in gothics - are all alone in the world except for some relatives.
The fact that the people aren't stupid. Karen picks up on little things herself and doesn't leave it just for the clever reader to notice and ignore it till chapters later.
Small references to how people experience the gothic genre, stating things you felt/knew already but seeing them printed out makes you realize/understand them better. Like this:
Quote:She had finished almost two-thirds of it now, and her familiarity with the conventions of the Gothic novel had inspired several hunches - educated guesses, rather - as to how the book would end. In one sense she hoped she was right, for that would prove how clever she was; in another sense she hoped Ismene would prove cleverer than she, scorning the old Gothic traditions in favor of a more original solution.

Things I disliked:
No mention of Peggy's poor cats. Did they stay alone in her house while she was travelling about?
I've been to a few auctions myself and you never got to take away your purchases the moment you bade for it, so I would think that's something the author neglected to explain.
The fact that Peggy for no reason at all didn't want to excavate the small stone house right away but postponed it; that was just a way to keep the findings from the reader till later in the story. Michaels could have thought of another reason for the delay, like not having workmen available.
The illogicality that Ismene, and her protagonist, liked to spend time in that horrible little house.

I'm not sure what to think of the supernatural element in the story. It was all right but I wasn't scared myself. I think I prefer to be scared by living people.

My verdict: an 8 out of 10
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#4
After reading your review of this book, Charybdis, and remembering Penfeather's, I am reminded of a line in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The heroine, Elizabeth, says to Darcy, the hero, these words, "I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly."Smile
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#5
(09-20-2010, 11:14 AM)AliceChell Wrote: After reading your review of this book, Charybdis, and remembering Penfeather's, I am reminded of a line in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The heroine, Elizabeth, says to Darcy, the hero, these words, "I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly."Smile

Well, of course it all boils down to opinion. I found the battle-of-the-sexes preoccupation tiresome and oppressive, the story dull, the characters witless. But that's not "the truth" nor would I mean to imply it is. If another reader has a positive experience, Michaels has accomplished something worthwhile. Who am I to criticize, if only another reader with opinions?
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