Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Dancing Floor

The Dancing Floor
by Barbara Michaels

Publisher's Blurb:
For years, Heather Tradescant had dreamed of the journey she and her father would take to England--a pilgrimage to the great gardens of history. Now that her father is dead, Heather is determined to fulfill his dreams. Unfortunately, her request to see the fabled 17th-century garden of Troytan House is denied by the owner. Though unwelcome, she braves the walls of briars and reaches the Victorian manor house beyond. She senses a strange mission of evil lurking, tainting the manor's peaceful beauty. Only then does Heather begin to wonder whether it is only stories of long-vanished witchcraft that haunt Troytan House or whether there is some more modern horror, hearer at hand, and far, far more dangerous. 

My Reaction:
For mindless escapism, this was fine.  It kept me entertained and reading until the end-- but great literature it ain't.  If you know what you're signing up for, there's no call for anything worse than minor disappointment, with this type of book.  Personally, I wasn't even that disappointed!  (Though... I will admit that it could've been better.  See the "tid-bits" section, below.)

(As an aside, I don't really expect great literature from the modern authors I choose to read-- because the modern writers who try to or think they are writing "Literature-with-a-capital-L" tend to churn out the most depressing, dull, utterly hopeless piles of excrement I've ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on-- not to sound too harsh.  No thanks.  I'll stick with unpretentious authors who know how to write an interesting story that doesn't sap you of your very will to live.)

Some of the reviews I've skimmed have indicated that in this late (1997) novel, it is obvious that when Michaels wrote this, the author was finally beginning to lose her touch or reach the bottom of her creative well.  (Incidentally, I think this is the first book of hers I've read since learning that Barbara Mertz-- a.k.a Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters-- had died.  She was a prolific author, and she gave her many fans countless hours of amusement and pleasure.)  Perhaps I haven't read her best works, yet (because I'm selecting them willy-nilly, with neither rhyme nor reason), or maybe I'm forgetting how wonderful some of the books I have already read were... but I didn't see all that much difference between this and the others I've read.

If you're a die-hard Michaels fan, you'll find this one at least passable.  If you've thought the others Michaels books you've read have been only so-so, you might find this one even more lacking than usual.  If you're new to the author, maybe this isn't your best introduction.  --But I thought it was ok!

SPOILERy Random Tid-Bits: 
--  When I first got to know our heroine (Heather), I was glad that at least she wasn't a dazzling beauty.  She's a little overweight, taller and more masculine in shape than the supposed "ideal" woman, not especially pretty, and just generally not the feminine perfection that irks the living soul out of readers who are... well, average in the looks department.  However happy I was that she wasn't an indisputable beauty queen, I was a bit ambivalent about the early repeated references to her weight/size.  I was hoping this wouldn't turn out to be one of those books where a chubby heroine eats a few salads, turns away a couple of desserts, jogs once or twice, and miraculously drops 30 pounds in two weeks.  I am glad to report that it wasn't.  Heather maintains a strong appetite throughout the book, she does very little exercise just for the sake of exercise, and she doesn't lose weight.  (Not that there's anything wrong with exercise and losing pounds to achieve a healthy weight-- but gosh, I just don't want to read about it in a novel that's supposed to be a pleasant escape from reality!)

-- So... We've established that Heather's not "all that" in terms of appearance-- or so she would have us believe.  And yet somehow she manages to be the center of nearly all male attention, throughout most of the book.  Maybe you think it's her sparkling conversation and sharp wit?  Yes, except that most of these men seem to have been captivated before she would've had the chance to display her personality (and her personality, as written, isn't that captivating, anyway).  Possibly some people exude a degree of charisma that attracts people, blindly and immediately-- but I think a more likely explanation here is that the author thought that the women reading this book would like to put themselves in Heather's place-- so multiple men at her beck and call it is!  It's just... kind of silly.

--  I knew from the beginning that Heather and Jordan would end up together.  (Look, I told you last time:  It's whichever eligible bachelor she meets first.  Well, maybe not always, but the formula does seem to hold true with alarming frequency.)  He treats her rudely from their first meeting-- and he's handsome-- so... Yeah, you know the characters that antagonize one another will end up together.  It's a tried and true system-- in these types of novels, at least.  (Not so sure it holds up in reality!)  I didn't mind the predictability... I didn't even mind the fact that they were so mean to one another, at times.  I just wish there would have been a little more "promising" interaction between the two before the last scene in the car.  C'mon!  Give us a little more sizzle.  It would make their final admissions of love slightly more believable.

--  Egyptology Watch:  "It was carved with designs as exotic as any that ever graced the coffin of an Egyptian pharaoh-- crocodiles, dragons, temples."  Also: "a grinning mummy".  Must get in those references to Egypt!  ;o)

--  "...the infamous Lancashire Witch Craze, which was to end in the death of a dozen innocent people."  I don't think I've ever heard much about any of the European "witch hunts", because over here, our focus is always the Salem witch trials.

--  Some of the indicators of Heather's supposed "homeliness" hit a little too close to home... "shoulders broad and square, not gently sloping"... hair that is "dull brown"... eyes "an equally undistinguished brown"... "high forehead, thick unshaped brows"... How rude, actually!  And why is it that when an author wants to emphasize that a character is plain, she usually has "boring"-- oh, excuse me, in this case it's "DULL" brown hair and brown eyes?  Makes me a little mad.  Brown is beautiful!  Eh, or something. 

--  I had to laugh when the voodoo doll / poppet / whatever that was supposed to look like Heather had "insultingly small" blobs of clay for breasts.  Ha ha!  Well, at least we won't suffer from undue back pain all our lives, Heather, m'dear.  Also-- Whatever you do, if your large-busted (...well, large-everythinged) cashier is making small talk about a pretty bra you're purchasing, and you're trying to be friendly and find something to say back to her on the subject-- whatever you do, don't remark upon the difficulty of finding undergarments that are comfortable.  She will make a rudely scoffing sound and you will blush uncomfortably and beat a hasty retreat ASAP.  Hey, lady-- shopping for bras is universally awful.  Smaller-chested women suffer through it, too!

--  "Resolutely avoiding mirrors (just like a vampire, I thought wryly) I used the comb that had been supplied.  I didn't need a mirror to know what I looked like."  ...I relate to this a little too well.

--  "He looked me over.  I had seen the same expression on the faces of farmers checking out a prize heifer..." Ha!

--  She refers to herself as a "spinster school teacher".  What?!  She's twenty-five!!  Twenty-five!!  And it's the late 1990s!! 

--  "This piece of paper had survived the man who wrote it by over three hundred years.  Even his bones were dust, but his handwriting-- distinctive, individual, personalized-- lay before me.  It's impossible to explain the impact of something like that to a person who doesn't feel the pull of the past."

--  Bobby is awful-- a child-psychopath-- but it's still surprising when a child is murdered in one of these books...

--  "Maybe he was the ghost.  There had to be one.  No servants living in, the cold meal, prepared by a cook who wasn't willing to hang around after nightfall-- yes, it sounded like a conventional Victorian ghost story."   Ha!  Hilarious, since the last book of this author's that I read (Wait for What Will Come), most of the servants were unwilling to stay around after dark!  Of course, in this one, we later learn that the cook goes home because she's married and wants to spend her evenings with her husband. 

--  There's a reference to a "heavy date", which sounds very 70s/80s to me.  I don't remember people talking about "heavy dates" in the late 90s.

--  It's interesting to see the author's other interests peeking through in all these books.  Of course there's Egyptology/archaeology-- that's in just about every book I've read so far.  But ever since reading the novel about the jewelers, I've noticed that she regularly works jewels into her books-- either through metaphors or in actual, physical jewelry.  There were the fire opal earrings and the cat's-eye ring, for instance.

--  "Cats have long memories, not like dogs."  Hmph!  Spoken/written like a true cat person.  Maybe some dogs forget, but I think most of them are just extremely willing to forgive our failings.  I know dogs have excellent memories, because I see evidence of it every day, with my own dogs.  Also, hasn't everyone met or at least heard about a dog that was terrified of or aggressive toward men-- or men with a specific feature, such as baldness, let's say-- because it had been mistreated by a former bald, male owner?  Many dogs remember things very well.

--  "Have you read Ainsworth and Mist Over Pendle?"  More books and authors to look up!

--  When a man-- whom she's literally just met-- calls her "Miss Tradescant", she rather rudely corrects him.  Apparently it's "Ms. Tradescant".  UGH.  Look, woman, get over yourself.  "Miss" and "Ms." are both accurate.  If you want to write your name or introduce yourself as "Ms.", that's your own business.  Personally, I don't see what the big deal is, these days, but by golly, you've got a nerve to jump down some poor guy's throat just because he didn't happen to select your title of choice.  Also, maybe it's just me, but the whole petulant insistence on "Ms." feels very 1980s to me.  Out-dated, in other words.

--  I was amused/annoyed by everyone's reaction to the crackers, when Sean offers them around.  "Some common commercial brand, I presume."  "They look vile, Sean.  If you like mass produced junk, you should stick to your favorite pretzels and chips."  ...Wow.  That's the most heated reaction to a snack food that I have ever seen.  Who refers to food as being of a "common commercial brand", anyway?  And "mass produced junk"?  It's a cracker.  Of course it's mass-produced!  Who makes crackers from scratch (as of the late 1990s)?!

--  The note that's supposed to be from Bob, the missing monster kid, is a print-out.  Later, we learn that his mother typed and printed the note, because she had already killed him.  So we know why it had to be printed-- but in a feeble attempt to make it seem less strange that the note should be printed, the author has Heather comment (internally) that "today's computer-habituated children don't write unless they are forced to".  Uh... Well, if it was an e-mail, alright.  But in the 1990s, how many kids would rather type and print a short note than grab a piece of paper and write it out?  It seemed like a strange and not really accurate observation. 

--  For the sake of the story, Frank had to take a sudden liking to Heather and decide for some superstitious reason that she must stay in his house and help him restore the gardens.  I get that-- but at some point, you wonder why he has such a strong fondness for her when he's known her so briefly.  I guess he's just an eccentric trillionaire (or whatever he's supposed to be)-- and there are some emotional barriers between his son and himself-- but it still feels very odd when he remarks that his son's opinions are "inconsequential" when compared to Heather's. 

--  I have to admit that it didn't even occur to me, until I saw it mentioned in someone else's review, that the book never resolves the issue of the very title of the book.  Ha!  There are occasional references to "the Dancing Floor", and various characters react strongly whenever Heather casually mentions it, but I don't think we ever get a good explanation of it.  (If we did, I must've missed it.)

--  More loose ends / red herrings:  We are given the distinct impression that Heather may have some latent magical abilities-- or something of the sort.  She stumbles through the maze and finds the only relatively safe exit.  She just happens to have that famous surname-- her ticket into the story.  She has that creepy dream about the witch.  The cat's-eye ring goes on her finger easily and refuses to come back off.  The mysterious cat seems to have a special connection to her and even wakes her when the house is burning. --And so on.  But none of it comes to fruition.  I guess we're supposed to be satisfied by Jennet's explanation that Heather is part of the "pattern" and has a role to fulfill.  It's a little feeble, though.