Victoria Holt

The Landower Legacy by Victoria Holt

Title: The Landower Legacy
Author: Victoria Holt
First published in 1984

Plot summary from Goodreads: Green-eyed Caroline Tressidor has the whole world at her feet. But at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, Caroline lets slip a secret. It is nearly fatal.

Caroline’s promising future dissolves without her knowing why. Her search for answers violates the iron rules of Victorian society. It takes her to the wild moors of Cornwall and pits her against her shy, pretty sister.

It also brings her the man of her dreams, Paul Landower. . .dark, mysterious, trapped in his own past. . .a past that may include a legacy of murder.

This one is hard for me to review, because it was not a bad read, but it absolutely did not live up to the promise of the genre/cover synopsis. I can’t really characterize this book as gothic, as there was almost no suspense at all. If I were pressed to put a genre on this book, cover and description nothwithstanding, it would probably be historical romance, or maybe family drama. I’m not really sure.

So, let’s get to my complaints. When I read a gothic romance, I am expecting that the heroine will be put in significant danger by someone who wants to keep her from succeeding in attracting the hero. There might also be some perceived light supernatural elements, even if it turns out at the end that they were just plain old human avariciousness or jealousy. A bit of haunting perhaps, or some lights appearing and disappearing in the woods. That sort of thing.

There should also be a secret that is coming back to haunt someone – usually the Hero. And then, last but certainly not least, there should be some sort of a large country home or chateau that is the center of all of the action.

So, with this book, all of the elements were here: a haunted mine shaft where black dogs appear when someone is in danger, an impoverished hero who is trying to save the estate that has been in family since the 15th century, and a number of secrets possessed by a number of characters.

The problem with the book is that none of these three things really had anything to do with each other. I am accustomed to seeing them used as plot devices, but their disconnection from one other made them just that much more obviously the gears to keep the plot moving forward, and it felt really unnatural. So, as a gothic, it didn’t work for me. There wasn’t one moment when my pulse quickened and I felt like the heroine was really in danger. The one point of danger ended up being so quickly over and easily resolved that it just fell flat.

Also, maybe it was the fact that I had just read a book using the same plot device that I hate that Holt used in this one, which meant that I figured out the “twist” the first time that an allusion to it was raised.

This sounds like I hated the book, but I didn’t. It was disappointing, but I actually really liked both the heroine, who was pretty tough, and Aunt Mary, who was a hoot – an independent woman who was running an estate (really successfully) at a time when ladies weren’t supposed to do anything more strenuous than fainting. And Catherine’s perfectly planned and brilliantly executed revenge on the man who jilted her (for her wealthy but weak sister) was delightful!

The romance though, was pretty unconvincing for me, and since I can’t abide cheaters, I was less than enamored of the married Paul Landower. I get it that he felt like he’d been trapped into marriage because his wife was a wealthy woman who bought herself a husband by leverage his family’s poverty against him. But, you know what? Them’s the breaks, dude. If you sell your soul for cash, you don’t get to complain when the purchaser decides she wants the benefit of her bargain. Women had been doing just this for generations in the time period in which this book is set. Plus, he was a terrible father to his very young son, which made him all that much more unlikeable.

Phyllis Whitney

Snowfire by Phyllis Whitney

Title: Snowfire
Author: Phyllis Whitney
First published in 1972

Plot summary from Goodreads: In this gripping new novel of love and danger, Phyllis A. Whitney spins into magnificent focus the icy weather and fiery passions of a chic eastern ski resort. The slopes are fine but for Linda Earle, who hasn’t come to Graystones for winter sports, the atmosphere is terrifying. Seeking to clear her brother of a murder charge, Linda finds her search for the truth hampered by her attraction to the mysterious Julian McCabe. It was Julian’s wife who had been murdered and now Linda’s presence has aroused new terrors. Is Linda going to be the next victim?

In a lot of ways, I am the perfect audience for this book.

Phyllis Whitney is one of the big gothic romance authors from the 1970’s. This is the second Whitney I’ve read – the first being Window on the Square. Whitney writes in both a contemporary and a historical time period. Window on the Square is historical. This one is contemporary.

To understand why I am the perfect audience for this book, you must understand something of my childhood. I was born in the midwest, and my parents fell in love with skiing when I was very young. I recall chartered bus trips from Omaha, the place of my birth, to Breckenridge and Aspen, Colorado, with the kids bedded down in the front of the bus, while our parents – the adults – played cards, smoked cigarettes, flirted and drank cocktails in the back. It was a raucous good time.

We moved to Idaho specifically for the skiing when I was in the fifth grade, and I spent every weekend on the slopes. I joined junior racers and my high school ski team. I threw myself down the mountain as recklessly as possible, and warmed up in the lodge and made fun of the ski bunnies who got all gussied up for the purpose, apparently, of sitting in the lodge and being hit on by the ski bums.

I don’t know if Phyllis Whitney was a skier, but she nailed 1970’s ski culture, from the fondue to the snow bunnies to the apres-ski gluhwein.

Graystones, the house at the center of this book, was perfect – a Norman castle transplanted into the north woods. The mystery was engaging, with Linda, the heroine, going “undercover” as an apres-ski hostess to clear her younger brother, Stuart, who has been accused of murdering Margot, the wife of Stuart’s ski mentor, Julian.

Julian is the owner of Graystones. As in Window on the Square, Linda forges a connection with Adria, the small daughter of Margot, who believes that she has killed her mother – the parallels between this book and Window on the Square are notable. And, while I will admit that I think that WotS is the superior book, this one was quite enjoyable. The story comes to a climax on the mountain at night, with Linda fleeing, on skis, from the pursuing murderer.

Now, about the cover. I really like the cover that shows up on goodreads, but like a lot of these books, it was issued in other covers, and my actual cover is not available to choose! I think that the cover for this edition is a little bit misleading, though – because that dress looks like this would be a piece of historical fiction.

This, however, is my cover:

Yes, it is just as crazy in person as it is in a photograph! So, this is a cheesy little book, but it is fun.

Victoria Holt

The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt

This is a migrated review from 2017. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit this blog theme prior to deleting the old one.

Title: The Secret Woman
Author: Victoria Holt
First Published in 1970

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Anna Brett is a governess to a wealthy English family, a role she’s convinced she’ll be doomed to live the rest of her life. But when she meets Redvers Stretton, the dashing captain of a ship named The Secret Woman, and she’s whisked from the bleak British coast to the sunny South Seas, she quickly realizes that things will never be the same. But with a murder dogging her steps and the mystery of a missing treasure haunting her dreams, Anna is forced to confront the clever captain-a man who may have just as many secrets as his ship.

First published in 1970, The Secret Woman was written by the prolific Eleanor Hibbert under her Victoria Holt pen name. While this book was published in “Holt’s” early period, it was actually published in the middle period for Hibbert. There were a total of 32 books published under the “Holt” name, and of those 32, approximately 23 of them were published after The Secret Woman.

Victoria Holt tends to be very hit and miss. This one is a miss.

I think that, perhaps, Holt was going for an homage to Jane Eyre with this one, with Redvers as the Rochester character, the conveniently orphaned Anna as Jane, and Redver’s wife, Monique, as the ill-fated Bertha. Like Bertha, the mildly mentally ill, consumptive Monique comes from an apparently fictional island named Coralle. Bertha, of course, is from Jamaica, and is the daughter of a wealthy family.

The issues with this book start with the pacing. The plot summary is misleading in that most of the elements referenced in the summary do not appear until the 50% mark of the book. The first 50% of the book felt relatively superfluous, focusing on Anna’s childhood and young adulthood, being first sent to England without her parents, later being orphaned, and then being raised by her unpleasant, unloving, bitter Aunt Charlotte. This, again, may be an ill-advised attempt to copy Jane Eyre. Few writers have the skill to write a Jane Eyre character, and Holt fails completely.

The “meet cute” between our hero and heroine also fails. Redvers and Anna meet when she is 12 and he is 19. I can understand her romanticizing him, since he is a dashing young man. I cannot understand, and am entirely grossed out, by his apparent romanticizing of her. She was twelve. There is nothing at twelve to attract a young man of nineteen.

It isn’t until around the 55% mark that Red & Anna end up in one another’s company consistently. From there, the book devolves into a shipboard travelogue. Way too much of the narration is delivered through the diary of the third-wheel Chantel, which ground the story to a halt. The suspense/gothic elements don’t appear until around 75%, and by that time, I am done. That section could’ve actually been pretty interesting, if it had been expanded to be more of the book, and if Holt hadn’t decided that the best way to deliver the reveal was through a letter.

Note to authors: telling us why and how something happened through a letter written by the perpetrator is generally not an emotionally resonant method of storytelling. Again, the tension, the suspense, the drama grinds to a freaking halt while I read a three page letter written by the villain/ess (no spoilers here) as he/she is in his/her death throes.

As an Eyre retelling: fail. As a gothic/romantic suspense: fail. As a period drama: fail. If you aren’t a Holt completist, don’t bother with this one. First you’ll be bored, then you’ll be irritated.

Barbara Michaels

Houses of Stone by Barbara Michaels

Title: Houses of Stone
Author: Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Mertz)
First published in 1993

Plot summary from Goodreads: When young professor of English Karen Holloway happens on a privately printed volume of verse dating from the early nineteenth century, it’s all in a day’s work. But when a battered manuscript bearing the same mysterious attribution, “Ismene, ” turns up, Karen realizes that it is an important discovery that could be the making of her academic career. Karen immerses herself in a headlong search for the true identity of the unknown author, tracking the provenance of the manuscript to Virginia’s historic Tidewater region.

She is not alone in her quest; academic rivals shadow her steps, trying to gain possession of the valuable manuscript, and the locals are more inquisitive about her activities than seems natural. Fortunately, Karen has the help of her eccentric and able mentor, Peggy, whose historical expertise proves to be invaluable. And, as she painstakingly deciphers the crabbed, charred pages, she begins to wonder whether she has the assistance of Ismene herself. Is the tale of Gothic horror that Ismene tells not a novel but a memoir, the very possession of which may jeopardize Karen’s life? Ismene’s legacy calls out from the past, from an eerie world fraught with terrifying impressions of fire and ice that will not die until the painful truths that inhabit houses of stone are revealed.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how brilliant, capable and well-educated Barbara Michaels, aka Elizabeth Peters, aka Barbara Mertz was. By all rights, we should really call her Dr. Mertz, since she was awarded a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago in 1952.

I haven’t read a lot of her Amelia Peabody series, where she really puts that Egyptology doctorate to work, although the few I’ve read I’ve enjoyed. I have a pronounced weekness for mid-twentieth century Gothic Romance, which is why I’ve read a lot more of her so-called gothic romances.

Houses of Stone barely hits the romance genre. There are two love interests, one of whom turns out to be every bit as despicable as I predicted, the other who redeems himself somewhat. The real love story in this book is between the main character, Karen, and her scholarship. I read this book with a friend who struggled with Karen. She was prickly, angry, suspicious and occasionally she got things absolutely wrong, but her behavior made sense to me. She was also over being condescended to and treated like an adorable but wayward child.

The first part of the book concerns Karen’s effort to buy the manuscript at the heart of the story. In order to do so, she must both outbid and outmaneuver her rivals, primarily the loathsome Bill Meyer, who is a smooth talking professor from a different university. Once she secures the manuscript with the help of her friend and co-conspirator, Peggy, who is a history professor (and secret sex manual author) at the some university, the story transitions to Karen’s analysis of the manuscript. As part of this analysis, she temporarily moves to the small Virginia town to research Ismene in situ. This results in Karen running afoul of most of the town.

There is one particular scene in the book where Karen has been basically coerced into speaking to a local book club by her landlady, who is an unpleasant sort. Let it never be forgotten that women can be misogynistic asshats, too. In any case, Karen responds with annoyance to being forced into the speech, and regales a room full of old biddies with their first taste of feminist criticism in a talk entitled “The Pen as Penis” (or “Penis as Pen,” I honestly can’t remember which). This was hilarious. As an aside, I would point out that the poisonous Mrs. Fowler who roped her into speaking to her book club for free had no expectation that Bill Meyer, a man who is also in town trying to beat Karen at her own game, would do the same.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the discussions about the history of the gothic novel. Barbara Michaels sly sense of humor comes through on several occasions, including the very end, with the restoration of a painting. She isn’t as successful in painting the gothic atmosphere in this one as in some of her others, but that’s just fine. The strengths of the book make up for the other elements that Michaels leaves intentionally underdeveloped. There is a lot of feminism here.

Karen isn’t interested in being the heroine of her own gothic romance. She wants to make intellectual discoveries that will set her discipline on fire, and being the persecuted innocent woman at the center of a gothic melodrama would just get in the way of accomplishing what she sets out to do. The villains are disarmingly pedestrian: an old biddy with money problems, a couple of competitors who will stop at nothing to beat her, and a society that refuses to take serious women seriously.

This book was published in 1993, but it felt older than that – I graduated from law school in 1992, and while society was more regressive than today, I don’t think it was quite so regressive as painted here. I was actually surprised that it was written in 1993 – it felt more like a late 1970’s or early 1980’s story. The author was extremely prolific, writing around 70 books, three separate series (Amelia Peabody, Vicky Bliss and Jacqueline Kirby), at least three non-fiction works, and numerous standalones. She wrote under three names – her true name, Dr. Barbara Mertz, was the name under which she published her non-fiction works on Egypt, Elizabeth Peters was her mystery name, and Barbara Michaels was the name she used for her gothic romance novels. It’s always been the Barbara Michaels novels towards which I gravitated, although someday I hope to read her Amelia Peabody series. She passed away in 2013 at 85.