As I continue my journal through the works of Barbara Michaels, I admit that I haven’t been taking a systematic journal. I didn’t start at the first book and continue through in order of publication. I wonder if doing that would have changed my experience. I just finished Houses of Stone, which was published in 1993. Barbara Mertz started publishing the books with the Barbara Michaels pseudonym in 1966. That’s when the more woo-woo of the books came out. Ammie Come Home was published in 1968. The Sea King’s Daughter, another of my recent reads, was published in 1975. I really liked The Sea King’s Daughter. I’m a bit more ambivalent about Houses of Stone, and I do wonder if Michaels started to change her style as time went on. It’s something that I’ll have to look out for with future books.
Houses of Stone tells us the story of Karen Holloway, an English literature professor, who found some fame in publishing a poem by an unknown author named Ismene. Karen found the poem in a tattered, old publication, and she got it republished with commentary. You know, the sort of thing that professors specializing in literature do. Karen suspects that Ismene was a woman writing in the late 1700s/early 1800s, and when Karen hears from her friend Simon, a book seller, that he found an unpublished manuscript that Simon thinks was written by Ismene. Karen agrees, and the battle for the manuscript and publication begins. The manuscript isn’t complete; the first few pages are missing. Simon offers the manuscript to the highest bidder, but gives Karen the option of preferred bidder. That means that Karen gets the option to outbid the highest bidder. With the financial help of her friend and colleague, Peggy, Karen is able to obtain the manuscript. The action begins then. Karen wants to figure out who Ismene really is. If she can give her a name, it would make the manuscript that much more valuable, financially and academically. Karen finds out that Cameron Cartwright sold the manuscript to Simon, as part of the estate of his uncle. Karen goes to the Virginia backwater town to investigate the family home/location to see if she can figure out if Ismene is part of the distant family tree. Peggy goes along to provide historical research. Meanwhile, rivals Bill and Dorothea also show up to try to beat Karen to the punch, and perhaps to steal the manuscript. Even though Karen is working from a copy, if the copy is stolen, Bill or Dorothea could beat Karen to publication. Karen’s apartment is broken into, and the manuscript is almost stolen from her by the burglar. Then Karen is almost run over by a car, and rescued at the last minute by Bill. Then a fire breaks out in the garage under Karen’s apartment. Karen narrowly escapes. Meanwhile, when Karen investigates Ismene’s house and grounds, she experiences cold waves, feels evil, and hears ghostly screams. There are so many questions: who is Ismene? Is the gothic manuscript autobiographical? Who is trying to hurt Karen? Who is the romantic interest: Bill or Cameron? What the heck is going on?
The story was okay. I enjoyed the book, and I read it quickly. I suppose those are good things. However, I just felt that the story was dragging at points. I was expecting more build-up with the romance angle, but it just sort of happens at the end. All the loose ends get tied up, but I’m not sure that the journey was as much fun as it was in the older books. As with other Michaels books, Karen is a feminist. She gets herself into and out scrapes. However, there’s still the element of the strong man in the background who really helps out. I would recommend the book, but with reservations that I don’t think that it’s the best of Michaels’ work.