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Houses of Stone

Houses of Stone

3.9 11
by Barbara Michaels

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It is a find of inestimable value for Karen Holloway. The battered manuscript she holds in her hand—written in the nineteenth century and bearing the mysterious attribution "Ismene"—could prove a boon to the eager young English professor's career. But Karen's search for the author's true identity is carrying her into the gray shadows of the past, to


It is a find of inestimable value for Karen Holloway. The battered manuscript she holds in her hand—written in the nineteenth century and bearing the mysterious attribution "Ismene"—could prove a boon to the eager young English professor's career. But Karen's search for the author's true identity is carrying her into the gray shadows of the past, to places fraught with danger and terror. For the deeper she delves into Ismene's strange tale of gothic horror, the more she is haunted by the suspicion that the long-dead author was writing the truth . . . and that even now she is guiding Karen's investigation, leading her to terrible secrets hidden behind the cold walls of houses of stone.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The bestselling romantic suspense author ( Vanish with the Rose ) falters here with a novel that lacks both romantic intrigue and suspenseful plotting. The story begins well, with vivid descriptive writing and convincing dialogue briskly setting up the premise. Karen Holloway, an ambitious assistant professor at an unnamed women's college in the Northeast, learns of a previously unpublished novel by a 19th-century author known only as Ismene. Since she herself made Ismene famous in the academic world by publishing a volume of her verse, Karen knows her reputation will skyrocket if she can buy the manuscript from the bookseller who found it and issue it with her commentary. She and her colleague Peggy Finneyfrock (a well-drawn character) travel to a dilapidated estate in Virginia's Tidewater region in search of clues to Ismene's identity. But other academics are also in hot pursuit, and Karen finds herself haunted by nightmares brought on by the claustrophobic themes in Ismene's work (``houses of stone'' is a phrase from one of the pseudonymous author's poems). Michaels's attempt to bring feminist critical ideas into the mainstream results in conversations that sound like lectures, and her plot's initial momentum bogs down in extraneous details, overly intricate narrative twists and the sporadic appearances of Karen's prospective lovers, who seem decidedly secondary to the main story. (Oct.)
Denise Perry Donavin
Michaels sets her heroine, Professor Karen Holloway, to the task of discovering the provenance of a remnant from an old manuscript. Holloway is convinced that it is a thinly disguised autobiographical novel by an obscure feminist poet whose verses have already helped Holloway carve a niche in the cutthroat business of academia. The professor's archenemies, two fellow literature experts, are equally convinced of the work's value and attempt desperate measures to gain access to the manuscript. Michaels has composed a mystery that is brimming with suspense yet revolves around authorial research rather than money and multiple murders. One of her best.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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4.18(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.06(d)

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Houses of Stone

Chapter One

Literature is not the business of a woman's life, and it cannot be.

Letter from Southey to Charlotte Brontë, 1837

If only Simon weren't such a practical joker!

The other booksellers with whom she dealt were not given to joking about their profession...as one of them gloomily put it, peddling the printed word to a nation of semiliterates was no laughing matter...and Simon, of all people, ought to have been free of that weakness. He specialized in rare antiquarian books and resembled a romantic novelist's conception of a dignified elderly European count. But the last time he had summoned her to Baltimore with breathless hints of a fantastic discovery, the treasure had turned out to be the complete oeuvre of Barbara Cartland.

"But," said Simon innocently, as Karen sputtered with outrage, "that's your field, isn't it? Women novelists?"

Their friendship was strong enough to survive such episodes; in fact, the ongoing debate between them, marked by withering sarcasm on Simon's part and heated argument on hers, lent an element of charm to a relationship that was inherently improbable. In every way, Simon was Karen's exact opposite. He was in his late sixties or early seventies; she was almost forty years younger. He was tall and lean; she was five-five and...to put it nicely...well-rounded. Simon was a self-proclaimed male chauvinist; her academic specialty was women's literature. She had her doctorate and an assistant professorship at a women's college; Simon had never mentioned attending a college or university. Yet he was one of the best-educated people she had ever met. Hehad at least a nodding acquaintance with hundreds of subjects, from baseball to Bartók, politics to Plato, dogs to dendrochronology. He and Karen did not agree on any of the above...except, possibly, dendrochronology. It was hard to start an argument about tree-ring dating.

What was it that had drawn them together and preserved an affection that grew even stronger, despite infrequent contact and violent differences of opinion? Karen pondered the question as she drove along Route 70 toward the Baltimore Beltway. Traffic was light, and she had been over the route so many times she could have driven it in total darkness.

It was dark enough, though the morning was only half advanced. Clouds blustered across the sky, their swollen surfaces pewter-gray. Karen had already switched on the headlights. It wouldn't dare snow, she thought. Not in April. Not even in Maryland. At least she hoped it wouldn't dare. The distance from Baltimore to her home was almost a hundred miles, some of it over winding mountain roads, and she had a full schedule of classes and conferences the following day. But she could no more have resisted Simon's tempting hints than she could have refused food after a month of fasting. He had been typically, tantalizingly vague. "No, I can't possibly describe it. You'll have to see it for yourself. But if I'm right...and I always am...this is the find of a lifetime for you."

What the devil could it be? A few tentative snowflakes melted against the windshield, and Karen switched on the radio, hoping for a weather forecast...a futile gesture, for there was nothing she could do about the weather anyhow, and she had no intention of turning back. If Simon was pulling another stunt like "the Cartland Collection," she would murder him.

Her finger paused in the process of punching buttons as the strains of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" reached her ears. That was one answer to the question she had asked herself about her friendship with Simon. Music. Before she met him, she had never cared for the classical composers, but if you spent time with Simon, you hadn't much choice. He always had music playing in the background...or, at times, loudly in the foreground, when he raised the volume to hear a favorite passage. Simon considered Mozart the greatest composer who had ever lived, with John Lennon a close second.

What else? Simon's sense of humor, of course. Even at his most outrageous he was funny. His sardonic view of the world as a planet-sized insane asylum helped steady her whenever some fresh example of stupidity or cruelty sent her adrenaline soaring.

There was another element. She had acknowledged it early in their acquaintance, with some surprise; it had never occurred to her until she met Simon that the attraction between male and female could be an abstract quality, unrelated to age or any other practical factor. He had never done or said anything to make her feel self-conscious or defensive. She knew he never would. It was only a game, a game he played with enormous skill, and one whose archaic rules she had learned to enjoy, though she would never be as good at it as he was.

And, of course, there was their shared passion for books.

Who knows whence such passions derive? Karen sometimes felt she had been born with hers. She had never been more than temporarily distracted by television; she read while she walked to school, while she brushed her teeth, while she dusted and vacuumed. She favored baths over showers, because it was impossible to read under a waterfall. She read the back of the cereal box at breakfast, when her mother refused to let her bring a book to the table. She loved the smell of books, the feel of books, the look of them on a shelf.

Simon felt the same. Unlike some booksellers, he was as interested in the contents of his wares as in the volumes themselves. The Cartland Collection had been an aberration, a joke he could not resist; on several other occasions he had supplied her with books of genuine interest.

What could it be this time? Karen hit the brake as a tractor trailer lunged into her lane. She was nearing the beltway, with its heavier traffic; she had better concentrate on her driving and stop dreaming about fantastic discoveries...the missing, probably apocryphal, chapters of Charlotte Brontë's last novel, or an unknown poem by Emily Dickinson. Such things did turn up, but not often, and she had already had one big find.

Houses of Stone. Copyright © by Barbara Michaels. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Peters (writing as Barbara Michaels) was born and brought up in Illinois and earned her Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago's famed Oriental Institute. Peters was named Grandmaster at the inaugural Anthony Awards in 1986, Grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America at the Edgar® Awards in 1998, and given The Lifetime Achievement Award at Malice Domestic in 2003. She lives in an historic farmhouse in western Maryland.

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Houses of Stone 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Ryan_G More than 1 year ago
This was my first Barbara Michaels book and I'm so mad at myself for not reading her earlier. This book hit all the right notes as far as atmosphere and character development. While I was reading the book I found myself getting lost in the serach for Ismene's real identity. I found myself jumping at the wailing heard in the woods, my heart started to beat a little faster when Karen's aparment caught fire and she had to jump for it. I anticipated every clue that Karen dug up about Ismene and her life and I cheered when she finally solved the identity of the author. Barbara Michaels is a wonderfuly descriptive writer who manages to capture every nuance of a rundown manor house, the cut throat world of academia, and the all too difficult paths that two people can take to find eachother. The only quibble I have is that I found the ending rather rushed as if the author ran out of space to fully flesh it out. Overall though I found this to be a wonderfuly written mystery and I'm now a Barbara Michaels fan for life.
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This book was very disapponting. The protagonist was unlikable...always snapping at people and selfish. Plot unitelligible. No suspence. Boring.