reading: Christmas Stalking

I admit I bought this partly because of the title. And because I love romances set during a holiday (Christmas especially, but honestly I’d love to read more set at other holidays). And because lately I’m having a streak of good luck when it comes to reading Harlequin’s “Love Inspired” line, which at first I approached very tentatively.

Title: Christmas Stalking

Author: Margaret Daley

Harlequin Love Inspired Suspense

November 2012 christmas stalking

Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: A female bodyguard with military training and a difficult background, Ellie St. James spends the Christmas holidays protecting cosmetics CEO (and product creator) Mrs. Rachel Winfield.

At seventy-three, Winnie is working on one last product before she retires; she doesn’t know it at the outset of the book, but someone’s been sending her threatening letters, and her business manager hires Ellie without consulting her. Winnie’s old but not helpless, and she’s written marvelously: kind but never twee or sacharin; invested in her adult grandson (the hero) but not overly interfering; in charge, but aging gracefully and stepping down intentionally once she’s finished a project that had meant a lot to her late husband.

Ellie, meanwhile, has a touching background that contains tragedy without being drowned by it. Her handicapped brother was bullied and died young, but instead of destroying her his life pushed her to become a strong woman, committed to protecting those who need her care.

More than anything this reminded me of a Nancy Drew mystery, only with an adult heroine. The mystery is complicated enough to be entertaining, but not written to be so creepy or gore-laden that it’s disturbing. There are set pieces (an elegant winter ball where a suspect shows up, for instance) that really, really brought Nancy to mind (and in case it’s not clear, I mean that as a compliment).

Active Ingredients:

missing or emotionally neglectful parents

raised by grandparents

time to provide grandchildren, you two

girl detective

scientist

snowed in

Christmas

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#tbrchallenge: October. Death is a Red Rose.

death is a red rose
Is anyone else having an overwhelming urge to go shopping for nightgowns right now?

Title: Death is a Red Rose

Author: Dorothy Eden

Published: 1970, Ace Books

October TBR Challenge theme: Paranormal or romantic suspense

Does this fit the theme? Hell, no. I have read some romantic suspense lately, but since it’s October I thought this might be a good time to clean out some of my backload of Gothics.

death is a red rose 2
My copy has this cover.

Summer before last (so, the summer of 2014, when neither of my children had yet started school but kindergarten for the eldest was looming over me like a storm cloud of hormones and sentimentality, threatening rain and tears every time I thought these are his last months of real freedom and babyhood) I went on a gothic-novel binge. I’m sure a psychiatrist could unearth a lot from that statement. Anyway, September rolled around and I got frantically busy, and then moved on to other things, leaving me with twelve or fifteen paperback Gothic romances still in the stacks.

Reading these does nothing to reduce the crowding on my shelves, because I can’t bear to get rid of them. I’d actually like to find some way to frame them, because the covers are amazing. But at least I can shift them out of the TBR column.

The book opens with an elderly lady named Arabia Bolton. You know the gently eccentric, meddling old ladies of Small Town romances? Arabia is their polar opposite. She’s had a long, eventful life; alludes to past lovers, including a sheikh; lies and exaggerates; manipulates people into arguments when she gets bored; and keeps secrets, including some pretty dark ones. I can’t say I liked Arabia, exactly, but she’d definitely be interesting to know.

She misses someone called Lucy, so she places an ad saying she has a ground floor flat, but it’s only available to someone named Lucy Cressida. (She has other tenants, as well, but when the book opens she’s feeling bored with them). The heroine, Cressida Barclay, is actually named Cressida Lucy, and she needs a place to live (and a job) because she’s had a fight with her insufferable fiance, Tom. I can’t do justice to him, so I’ll quote a bit:

“Oh no. We’re only engaged. We’re going to be married on the twelfth of June in 1957.”

“A long-term plan?” Jeremy put down his glass and picked up a pipe. “Do you mid if I smoke?”

“Not in the least.” Pipe smoke, drifting fragrantly about, would add to this pleasant illusory sensation. “Tom’s very cautious,” she said.

“I gather he must be. How old is he?”

“Thirty, but I’m only twenty-two. He says twenty-four is a better age for me to marry, and by that time, of course, he’ll have paid for the house and furniture. We bought a bedroom suite the other day.” (p. 16)

The whole engagement to Tom sounds so stifling I almost asphyxiated every time the book mentioned him. I mean, it all sounds very safe, but when I was twenty-two I don’t think I wanted that much safety. Or that much furniture.

The pipe-smoking Jeremy, by the way, is the ground-floor (basement, that is) tenant in Arabia’s house. You can tell he’s the hero because he argues with Cressida, and helps her solve the mystery of what happened to Lucy. but he doesn’t actually profess his love until the ending. There are hints he finds Cressida attractive, but they’re mostly buried in affectionate arguments.

The other people in the house are a violin player named Vincent Moretti; a widow named Mrs. Stanhope who has something wrong with her throat and can’t talk; Mrs. Stanhope’s fifteen year old son, Dawson, who is obsessed with chemistry and murders; Miss Glory, a plain and plainspoken woman whom Moretti flirts with; Arabia herself; and above all else, Arabia’s deceased daughter Lucy, whose room has been left untouched because Arabia claims it makes her feel as if Lucy isn’t dead, but merely late getting home from her last dance.

The whole thing is divinely morbid and creepy, and [highlight for SPOILER] as it turns out, Lucy wasn’t really Arabia’s daughter, and isn’t really dead. Far from being an innocent girl who died tragically, Lucy is a murderer, and she’s still in the house.

So basically this was perfect Halloween reading. It had that vaguely-familiar feeling that all 70s Gothics do once you’ve read a few of them, but this was memorable both for being well-written and for genuinely giving me the creeps at a few points.

reading: Her Stolen Past

Title: Her Stolen Past

her stolen pastAuthor: Amanda Stevens

Published: Harlequin 2002

I’m fairly sure I bought this because I was on a brief “small town romance” spree, and this is one of several books (by different authors) set in “Cooper’s Corner.”

But it’s actually romantic suspense, even if it is set in a dreadfully wholesome small town. In spite of the publication date some elements of this really, really felt like they’d been plucked from the late 80s/early 90s; that might be why I feel into it so contentedly.

Comforting elements: amnesia, a reclusive piano playing composer, the heroine being driven off a cliff (and left for dead) in a storm. We also have a stalker (who turns out to be a victim, not the villain of the piece) and a personal assistant (our amnesiac heroine, also a victim of the madwoman composer). I’m making this sound like an assemblage of cliches, and in some ways it is,  but they’re perfectly deployed. I could even overlook the matchmaking teenage boy, even though I hate all matchmaking children on principle.

Active Ingredients:

left for dead, or at least soggy

amnesia

kindly elderly dying lady

former cop (hero’s sister)

stalkers everywhere

ongoing larger plot in the background

sad tinkling piano music of sadness, which is also a clue

Sweet Valley Twins #56: The Wakefields Strike It Rich

The Wakefields Strike It Rich Where Are We? Mostly at the mall, and briefly at a swanky restaurant called Jacqueline’s.

When Are We? Immediately after the weekend when they had to clean the house because of their disastrous party.

Recap: Elizabeth and Jessica go to Casey’s to avoid having to clean the house again, and see Steven staring longingly at some blonde girl named Jill. Janet informs them Steven doesn’t stand a chance with her because Janet’s brother Joe also likes her, and Jessica is displeased. I love Jessica’s insane competitive streak over things that are none of her business.

Jessica has to borrow two dollars from Lila to pay for her food, and when Lila tells her she needs to learn to manage her money Jess argues that if she had money, she’d be more generous to her friends.

Great-Aunt Helen arrives for a visit; she has a broken arm, but is vague about how it happened. She gives Jessica, Elizabeth, and Steven $100 each to spend however they want.Liz wants to put some of hers towards the camera she’s been saving up for.

Jessica also brags that they met Coco, the “best singer in the world” who also happens to be Brooke Dennis’ mom. That makes one mention of Brooke prior to book #55, and one after it, so my guess is we’ll never hear of her again.

Elizabeth and Amy go bookstore shopping. I am still such an Elizabeth at heart. She buys herself the latest detective novel by Amanda Howard, and buys Amy a biography of Johnny Buck.

Jessica, meanwhile, treats her friends to food at Casey’s and then buys them lots of little things (bracelets, posters), basically blowing rapidly but generously through her money. Lila warns her not to, but Jessica’s enjoying herself, and I sympathize. I like spending money on people, too. She’s also consciously not making people pay her back because she wants to be more generous than Lila, so I suspect she’s basking in the unaccustomed sensation of being kinder than someone else.

Steven goes into a jewelry store and after being shown some expensive earrings settles on a pair of simple gold ones for $28. They sound pretty, but that’s still a chunk of money to spend on a girl who barely speaks to you. The salesman snarkily says if he wants anything cheaper he’ll have to go to the five-and-dime (that’s archaic for “dollar store”), and you know, THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN SMARTER. Lots of fourteen year old girls love costume jewelry.

Elizabeth invites Aunt Helen to go with her to the bookstore, where Amanda Howard will be appearing in person and autographing books. Aunt Helen declines, and dodges further questions about how she broke her arm.

Jessica tries to make Steven tell her and Elizabeth what he bought for Jill Hale. She also suggests he buy her flowers and take her on a date to a really fancy restaurant.

Elizabeth overhears her father assuring Aunt Helen that if she can’t retain a good lawyer from his list of suggestions hell fly out there and handle her case himself, and that she needs to be protected from “those sharks,” and can’t let them bully her.

Jessica leaves Steven a magazine with an article called “My Dream Date,” along with a note telling him to read it. It’s the same dinner-and-jewelry-and-flowers-and-dancing kind of overblown date she was suggesting earlier, and I honestly can’t think of anything two fourteen year olds would be less likely to enjoy. It would bore me rigid, and I’m ancient.

He asks Jill out, despite her having shown no interest in him whatsoever and she responds, “I guess that would be okay.” Wow. Cancel, Steven, and give the earrings to someone else. Anyone else.

Aunt Helen gets an envelope in the mail but won’t open it in front of everyone. That is not suspicious, Elizabeth, that is fairly reasonable. (Elizabeth does not hear me and would not agree even if she could.)

At the book signing Amanda Howard tells Elizabeth there are mysteries going on “right under our noses,” which is all the additional encouragement Liz needs to decide Aunt Helen is in trouble and she should investigate. Then she catches Aunt Helen crying over an episode of Days of Turmoil, and has trouble believing that’s the whole reason for her tears. So Liz confides in Amy, who in turn decides they have to STEAL AUNT HELEN’S LETTER and find out what is going on.

At the Dairi Burger Jill is more or less ignoring Steven and laughing at Joe’s jokes, while Cathy is being friendly and laughing at Steven’s jokes. Joe buys Jill fries. Steven accidentally squirts ketchup on her. I don’t know why he even likes her, other than that she’s pretty, because she’s downright unfriendly to him most of the time.

Jessica’s down to fifteen dollars. She’s bought stuff for all her friends, even earrings for Lila (and a matching pair for herself, which she doesn’t actually even like).

Elizabeth finds out Aunt Helen is having trouble sleeping. She and Amy elaborately coax her to help her choose an outfit while they go through her purse, and they find a picture of a man they decide looks unfriendly.

Jessica talks Steven into giving her ten dollars, since she helped him plan his date and pick out what to wear. Ha.

Elizabeth and Amy watch an old movie called Don’t Talk and decide Aunt Helen witnessed a crime and that’s what’s going on. They think the “mean man” in the picture broke her arm. Oh, Liz. At what point do you imagine him giving her a photograph? Do you think thugs hand them out to all their victims?

Steven’s date is both boring and awful, and he runs out of money (the cab cost forty dollars because Jill wasn’t even ready when he got there to pick her up) and has to ask her to chip in.

Aunt Helen finally explains to Elizabeth that she broke her arm in a car accident. The insurance company are trying to say she hadn’t paid up on her claim, so she has to hire a lawyer to help her prove that she’d made all her payments. They guy in the picture is her boyfriend, Thomas. Elizabeth offers to give back the seventy dollars she has left, which is sweet. Aunt Helen refuses, of course.

Elizabeth buys her camera. She and Jessica chip in on a gift for Aunt Helen (a card and a picture frame), and Liz agrees to buy Jessica the shirt she likes but now can’t afford (it costs $40) if Jessica will give her a blue sweatshirt she bought when they visited their father’s college.

Quotes:

“Lila, you are not going to believe what happened,” Jessica said when her friend picked up the phone.

“You found some more change on the way home?” Lila said. (p. 16)

I am sensitive about money but that still made me laugh. So did this:

“I could spend a hundred dollars in an hour,” Lila said.

“Yeah, but that’s because you practice,” Jessica replied. (p. 25)

It’s such a perfect 80s/90s portrayal of a rich girl. I love it.

“I’m just trying to give you some good advice,” Lila said. “I know what I’m talking about. No one will remember that you bought them stuff.” (p. 64)

It’s sad that she’s so cynical at such a young age, but she’s not wrong, exactly.

“What about Jill? How did she get home?” Elizabeth asked.

“Her father came and picked her up at the restaurant. After he told me what an irresponsible jerk I was,” Steven said. (p. 120)

Wow, imagine going off on a fourteen year old after he’s spent a bunch of money on your brat of a daughter. No wonder Jill’s such a raging bitch: she learned it at home.

Sweet Valley Twins #54: The Big Party Weekend

big party weekendWhere Are We? The Wakefields’ house, mostly.

When Are We? A five-day period when the Wakefield parents are in Mexico without their children. At the end of The Slime That Ate Sweet Valley they were discussing maybe having a party while their parents were away, so yay, continuity!

Recap: Jessica thinks they’re going to have five days of freedom, so at school she starts inviting people to a party on the weekend. Steven is doing the same thing, so they agree to combine parties.

Elizabeth asks if their parents have any chores for them to tackle while they’re gone. They suggest the kids clean out the garage and have a yard sale, which they agree to because they need money for party supplies.

They night before they leave the Wakefield parents reveal that someone called Mrs. Brown will be staying with the kids.

I don’t object to having someone stay in the house while the parents are out of the country, but Mrs. Brown is so awful I could barely finish this book. I don’t know, maybe target-age readers are able to enjoy wallowing in the fantasy of being sorely mistreated by an adult, but reading this AS an adult was horrible. How could they leave without setting ground rules like, “Do not make up a bunch of house rules that aren’t ordinarily in place, and here are the usual things we eat”?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Jessica makes Liz promise not to tell everyone at school that they aren’t having a parent-free bash after all, because she’s embarrassed.

At home, May (Mrs. Brown, the babysitter) has set a new bedtime, a new limit on time spent watching television, and won’t allow after-school snacks. Because that is a totally reasonable way to approach a babysitting job: change all the house rules, and then yell at the kids for “having no manners” when they object.

Jessica puts purple dye in May’s shampoo, and I don’t actually blame her. I mean, it’s horrible, but so is cooking stuff people hate and forcing them to eat it. Bodily integrity: it’s a thing. She’s also waking them up at 5:30. I’d run her over with a truck.

Elizabeth sets May’s clock radio for 3:30, and tunes it to “the station that played the loudest and most obnoxious heavy metal music.” I can’t believe this ghostwriter has written an adult so awful I’m siding with the kids on this. Well done, ghostwriter. Or Francine, if this was in an outline that she wrote.

Steven makes her coffee undrinkable by adding garlic powder and stuff. May won’t let them use the phone.

On Thursday afternoon they have their garage sale, and they earn a lot of money but Jessica accidentally sells a carved wooden rose that belonged to their mother’s great-great-grandmother, so Elizabeth starts trying to track it down through antique dealers.

Meanwhile in the background of all this, Amy has been warping her personality out of shape over some guy she likes named Rob.

Jessica has a plan for getting rid of May on the night of their party, and Steven goes along with it. At dinner Elizabeth is confused that her siblings are trying to be polite and agreeable.

Elizabeth has a “setting up the next book” conversation with someone named Brooke who has divorced parents; her mother might be coming to visit, all the way from Paris.

Amy talks Elizabeth into bringing Todd along to Casey’s so he can meet Rob. They do, and he’s obnoxious.

Elizabeth talks to a man named Martin Hannaford at Valley Antiques; he hasn’t seen the wooden rose, but offers to call her if it turns up. She has to tell him not to call until after Sunday (because she’s not allowed to answer the phone in her own house while May’s in charge). Later she has a conversation in which May obviously doesn’t believe she stayed after school to work on the newspaper; it’s patently obvious to the reader that May has seen her at the antique shop. She sends Elizabeth to her room, and Elizabeth tells Steven and Jessica that she wants in on whatever plan they have for getting rid of May.

The night of the party Steven takes a backpack and pretends to run away, and a few hours later calls, saying that he’s at a convenience store near a friend’s house in Palilla Canyon. May leaves to pick him up, and apparently this will keep her away from the house for long enough to have a party.

The party is a disaster: people they don’t even know show up, there are food fights, the house and pool get trashed, Rob is obnoxious and tries to steal CDs, and May shows up before it’s over.

She’s so mad at the kids she packs to leave, which is a completely sane adult reaction! No, I’m kidding: it’s nuts and wildly irresponsible, and she could probably be charged with something (child abandonment?) for walking out of a house before the parents have returned from another country.

They apologize, she blows her whistle and drives all the horrible party guests out of the house, and then she has a heart-to-heart with the Wakefields and confesses  she’s never looked after older kids before so she thought she had to “keep them on their toes” right from the start. Because “make the children hate you” shows up in so many guides to childcare, I guess.

May offers to help them clean the house, but the children insist on doing it themselves. Well, Elizabeth insists, but the others agree.

The next day after they’ve cleaned May shows up with the antique wooden rose. The guy from Valley Antiques called, having seen the rose at an auction, and after he told her the whole story May drove up and bought it back for fifty dollars (Jessica had originally sold it for seventy-five). I think we’re supposed to applaud her “toughness” now that it’s being used for good, but honestly I haven’t forgiven her yet for being the least responsible, self-controlled adult I’ve yet encountered in Sweet Valley. And that’s saying something, I know.

Quotes:

Jessica threw up her hands. “Those rules are unbelievable! Why did Mom and Dad pick this woman for us? Do you think they’re mad at us about something?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I’m sure they didn’t know she was like this. When they met her, she was probably nice. She just forgot to tell them that she hates kids!” (p. 31)

Super adulting from both the Wakefields and this woman, there.

May frowned. “Honestly, I don’t know why you have to look so much alike.” (p. 55)

Idk, genetics?

“That depends. What music do you like?” Elizabeth asked.

“Everything except the Emerald Girls, or whatever they’re called,” Rob said, naming one of Amy’s favorite groups.

Any giggled. “Oh, I hate them, too.” (p. 59)

Sigh.

“It worked on ‘Days of Turmoil,'” Jessica said. (p. 70)

Words to live by.