Review for The Headmaster's Wife, by Jane Haddam

The Headmaster's Wife is the only Gregor Demarkian novel I've read by Ms. Haddam, and I think it'll probably be the last.

Mark, a young teen who thinks he's possibly becoming mentally ill, calls Gregor from his private boarding academy outside Boston to tell him he might have seen a body on campus. And oh, by the way, his roommate hung himself. Gregor, having issues with wanting to investigate any more murders, goes up to Boston thinking he'll just help out the unstable young teen, since the suicide seems pretty solid. But then he gets sucked into campus politics, and campus-town relations, and then someone else dies. Already in place among the town's police, Gregor finds himself solving yet another murder case.

The characters were all very well formed in this book. Dare I say, over-formed? The first chapter introduced a dozen people, bing bang boom, most from their own POV. The result was a bit muddling and overwhelming. Long backgrounds, personality details, philosophical perceptions, previous employers...the list of details went on and on. And not just at the start. Large swaths of this book slowed down to cover furniture, history, historical philosophers, and other details irrelevant to the plot. One spot had a character muse for two pages on an anecdote about a character who wasn't involved in the current story at all. It did make the characters feel more realistic, but in a way I've usually heard advised against: if it's not related to the plot, it doesn't need to be there. I nearly put the book down more than once, so turned off by the blubber.

I don't live on the East Coast, so a lot of the references were lost on me. I don't collect old furniture. I don't use politics as a way of life. I don't live defensively, automatically covering my tracks in case I might get attacked for doing something someone powerful doesn't like. I don't have negative opinions toward poorer people moving into rich people's circles due to hard work. I just couldn't relate to many of the characters in this book, and found myself not caring who the killer was.

I found the title of this book highly misleading, as the only thing spectacular about the headmaster's wife is that she's a sociopath who doesn't get identified as such (I hope the author intended for people to pick up on that: she presents a dozen excellent examples of sociopathy in her character, then has her think fondly of a psychopath and use similar tactics to him, if far less violent). Otherwise, the book isn't really about her, not in the way you think it will be.

On the psychopath: he's a character introduced at the beginning of the book. Yet not until halfway through does anyone seemingly notice or mention his crazy, violent obsessions. Then, suddenly, everyone does. It's like he's two different characters. It made no sense, and artificially postponed the revelation of his psychopathy until a teacher came across a paper by the student, which he hadn't graded yet, in order to reveal a plot detail. What, he hadn't ever assigned any writing to this student, all year? The story takes place in February! I call shenanigans and forced plot density.

The plot itself didn't strike me as very tight. The premise that got Gregor to campus was a little shaky, though presented well through the POV of the self-doubting Mark. However, once Mark's mind cleared enough to think more rationally, no more sense was ever made of the "body in the snow". The repetition of its mysterious circumstances showed up multiple times in the book, and yet never had more detail added to it, until it was fully solved all at once. That happened a lot, the repetition of details. Even the temperature of that first night, nine degrees below zero, must have been said ten times. Was it ever important as nine versus eight or ten? No.

The multiple POVs did help to hide who the killer was. Everyone had a secret, and some were hiding things you didn't expect them to be hiding. There were only a couple of clues as to the identity of the real killer, and they were completely swamped in the myriad other details, most of which were completely irrelevant.

I found myself irritated by the end, in which one murder seems to remain unsolved. The way it was handled left Gregor seemingly apathetic again, and the cops incapable of a five-minute Q&A with the kitchen staff in order to clear it up. There is certainly implication as to who committed that murder, but I didn't see any reason for it not to be looked into. The author just let them get away with it.

The writing in this book is either exceptionally long-winded, repetitive and boring, or it's operating in a meta-level where its very prose addresses and mirrors the rarified atmosphere in which many of its elitist characters seemed to live and breathe. I honestly can't tell, not having read any other books by this author. Either way, I'm disinclined to search further.

2 of 5 stars.

Review for Roots of Murder, by Janis Harrison

A cozy small-town murder mystery centered around flowers. Not really gardening, as the cover states.

Bretta Solomon has recently lost her husband. She runs one of the small town's flower shops with a friend named Lois. When her flower supplier, an Amish man named Isaac, whose brother bought Bretta's family farm in the next town, dies under mysterious circumstances, Bretta is both saddened and alarmed. Isaac's brother, Evan, begs her to find out what happened, and Bretta is pulled into a mystery where half the people involved are Amish, with customs she doesn't understand, and the other half have their own host of secrets.

I loved the characterization in this book. Everyone from Bretta, who can't open the door to her old bedroom she shared with her late husband and face the memories inside, to Leray, the redneck who wants in on the flower industry, to Margaret, the quiet woman who scavenges for pumpkins and subscribes to an Amish magazine to keep in touch with that part of her community, really stood out as unique and individual. I also enjoyed some of the minor characters: Sam, Cecil, Cleome and Lois. Everyone was vivid.

The plot felt a little simple, in regards to what Bretta did to learn who did what, etc. The actual killer and their motive was well done, but it was ridiculously easy to see coming due to some poor foreshadowing. Bubbles' intro into the story felt highly random, and yet since it was there, it couldn't be random, so overall the Bubbles story line felt forced. I highly enjoyed the side-plot that dealt with what Isaac had in his grow house, and the glimpse of Amish life was well-presented with both pros and cons that realistically affected the characters.

The writing was very good. I enjoyed the clear description that took time to involve me fully without making the plot drag. Small details were effortlessly included throughout, making every setting vivid. The details of running a flower shop and of the Amish characters' lives were made both informative and interesting.

4 of 5 stars!

Review for An Ice Cold Grave, by Charlaine Harris

Jam packed with spoilers!

Harper can sense the dead; it gives her an odd job, where she travels the eastern half of the US, helping people locate their dead and/or telling them how those dead passed away.

In this third book, Harper and Tolliver head to Doraville in January to find a missing boy. Instead, they find eight, who were gruesomely tortured and killed by a pair of sociopaths. And they sleep together.

Yeah, wait, what?

I feel like the author tried to push too many envelopes at once here, going for graphic child murders and near-incest all in one short book. Were we not supposed to notice the squickiness of Tolliver's and Harper's sex scenes (yes, plural) because we were distracted by the horrific assaults on eight young teen boys?

Again, the character of Harper is the only POV we get. I think that really hampered the plot of this book, because it made Harper have to do all the work herself. The last half of the book is, again, H&T trying to leave town, but being restrained by the authorities. Into that situation, add Harper's odd desire to wander among the book's settings, revisiting places she's already been or characters she's already seen. Some of these scenes actually had use. But were the others a smoke screen? I can think of two entire scenes where nothing was learned or accomplished aside from noticing that the plot was starting to drag.

I did appreciate the plot not being overly formulaic in regards to who the killers were. I was treated to an overload of uncertainty on Harper's part, combined with a lot of details that might or might not mean a thing. Together, that completely muddied the waters. But again, the last few dozen pages of the book felt rather aimless.

Harper's character again can't get past her past, to make a bad pun. She constantly bemoans her past home life with Tolliver and their other sibs, and how she needs to use the gift that the lightning gave her before it goes away again. She comes across as unable to focus on her present situation (despite what happens with Tolliver) and defensive about her job, whereas in book one, she seemed quite all right to let it be what it was.

The sexual encounters with Tolliver were abrupt and creepy. There was very little lead-up at all. After all the work that the author put into making their relationship half-business, half-sibling, this switch to romantic love feels as abrupt as having someone flick on a lightswitch when you're trying to light some mood candles. Utter failure. Previous sexual encounters in the series occurred off-screen, but here, we're treated to some very enthusiastic foreplay on a few different occasions. It feels like the author has been building to this scene for three books, yet failed entirely to remember the emotional side of her characters. They apparently think about each other safely in their heads, in a "but he's been my brother for decades!" sort of way. Then they have their first tryst. Then they decide, oh, now we'll just tell everyone we're a couple. Never mind that they'd built their reputation as a brother-and-sister team! I can't imagine they'll get many clients whose family trees branch after this. After all the poking fun at hillbillies Harper did in book one, it seems disingenuous to take these familial characters to this place in their relationship.

On that first tryst: I see that as a major plot failure. Not for what they did, but for what they weren't doing. Before that, they'd headed out to a location where they met a young boy who told Harper to come back and find him soon. He didn't have time to say any more. Harper and Tolliver are chased away, but instead of seeking a way to locate the boy to see what he wanted, they go back to their cabin and screw like rabbits. While they're doing this, the poor boy is committing suicide. It's never explicitly mentioned, but that's the timeline, and it's just one more creepy part about this book. Afterward, it's clear that the boy needed to die for the plot to progress, but "let's have a not-really-siblings love fest" is about the worst plot device I can think of to distract the reader while that happens.

The writing was filled with repetition, in concepts revisited and in overexplained ideas and actions. The voice of Harper is distinct, but while it is constant throughout the book, it's depressing and remote, and caught up in its own replaying reel. It's like listening to Rousseau's distress signal on the LOST island for sixteen years, and about as interesting.

I don't even want to know what happens in the next book; this one was just too creepy and disturbing. 2 of 5 stars.

Review for Grave Sight, by Charlaine Harris

I grabbed this at the library, having never read any Sookie Stackhouse or anything else by Charlaine Harris. The pretty pink cover art made me think it would be a cozy mystery, but...no, it's not really cozy. Despite the fact that I don't like first-person POV books, and I'm tired of female characters with "boyish" names, I did enjoy this book enough to keep reading.

The plot, following Harper and her stepbrother Tolliver as they become embroiled in the secrets of a fundamentalist town in the Ozarks, was presented with few hiccups. Harper's ability to sense the dead from a distance brought her to this town to search for a missing girl, whom she finds pretty quickly. And that's when the trouble starts. Various long-time residents to the town have their own secrets, which Harper can't guess at, leaving her bouncing from one angry face to another.

The secret of who murdered whom and why was, unfortunately, not well concealed for me. There was a nice dearth of hard fact, making it impossible to say for certain what had happened until all was revealed. But mysteries are by nature formulaic, and with only X number of characters and plot arcs to choose from, I had motive pegged halfway through. I couldn't stop reading, though, due to a need to learn all the details surrounding the incidents.

Sex was toned all the way down to happening offstage, though it was present in more than one story arc. There was minimal swearing, though the F-bomb presents itself here and there. Yet, always in character and for good reason.

The characters were generally presented very well. Most every one had a full, rounded feel to them, from the hussy waitress to the chilly socialite. The two that felt the most forced were Hollis and Mary Nell: plot direction showing through, methinks.

Some of the characters reacted with a black and white, good vs. evil response when they learned what Harper's ability was. Others were presented as unaware, and their normal personalities were allowed to show. The only character besides Tolliver who seemed to accept her ability was Hollis, who inexplicably fell for Harper despite her description of herself as quite ordinary, and of Tolliver as the irresistible one. Shades of Bella? Their storyline never seemed to fit well with the rest of the novel.

I did have some trouble with the writing style. As I said, I'm not a fan of first person POV. Though the book's tone seemed consistent given Harper's background, I personally couldn't relate to her much at all, and the book came across as dim and emotionless, spattered with panic attacks that didn't feel properly grounded (ahaha, lightning joke) in the character's past (fear of lighting, I get, but fear--nay, full blown panic--of being without Tolliver was never explained to my satisfaction). Contrasting with that, every other paragraph seemed to suffer from telling instead of showing. There was a lot of concept repetition and a few repeated dialogue scenes in regard to her being struck by lightning. Honestly, I got it the first time. The fifth didn't give me anything new.

I was pleased to find merely a single error of omission in 263 pages: an end quotation mark left off some dialogue near the end of the book.

This book was enough to hold my interest as a free library loan, but there is no way I'd have paid the $23.95 price listed inside the front flap. Not for these particular 65K words.

3 of 5 stars.