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Saturday, November 23, 2013


Author:  Leigh Perry (pseudonym for Toni L.P. Kelner)

Plot Type:  Cozy Paranormal Mystery (COZ) 
Ratings:  Violence2-3; Sensuality2; Humor3 
Publisher and Titles:  Berkley Prime Crime Books
          A Skeleton in the Family (9/2013) 
          The Skeleton Takes a Bow (9/2014) 
          The Skeleton Haunts a House (10/2015) 

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 10/15/15 to include a review of The Skeleton Haunts a House, the third novel in this series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two books. 

                       NOVEL 3:  The Skeleton Haunts a House                       
     What holiday could bring more warmth to a skeleton’s chest cavity than Halloween? And when you’re a living skeleton who’s not supposed to be seen outside the house, it’s a welcome chance to get some fresh air and rub bony elbows with people. That’s why Sid doesn’t mind wearing a full-body dog suit and going as Scooby-Doo along with Georgia Thackery’s Velma to the Halloween Howl.

     Sid can’t wait to go through the Haunted House—but he gets rattled for real when a genuine dead body is discovered. Trapped inside as the police quickly seal off the crime scene, Sid makes no bones about dropping the dog suit and posing as an actual skeleton. This murder is a skull-scratcher, but as long as Sid is on the inside, he might as well case the joint to figure out who used the cover of darkness to commit the perfect crime.

     It's late October in the college town of Pennycross, Massachusetts, and the campus is swarming with costumed students and townsfolk who are lining up to visit McHades, the college's haunted house fund-raiser. McHades is actually a long-empty former arts building called McQuaid Hallnamed for the family who initially endowed the college back in the 1950s. This year, Georgia's sister, Deborah, is in charge of McHades, and Georgia's daughter, Madison, is one of the "scare actors."

     On opening night, Georgia and Sid dress up as Velma and Scooby-Doo and head for McHades. Unfortunately, their visit comes to an abrupt halt when one of the customers stumbles across a murdered woman lying in a dark corner of the zombie party room. Deborah feels responsible for the young woman's death because she didn't insist that the McQuaid family give her money to install security cameras, so she asks Georgia (and Sid) to investigate the case.

     The rest of the book proceeds just like the previous books. Georgia and Sid search for clueswith Georgia doing most of the legwork while Sid does Internet background checks on all of the suspects. Every 20 pages or so, they come up with a possible suspect or a likely clue, but nothing really pans out until the final pages, when the completely improbable showdown scene brings the matter to a completebut, for me, unsatisfyingresolution. And don't get me started on the high school teacher who keeps a stuffed lion named Lance on her deska lion that somehow lets her know which students are to be trusted and which are bad apples. ("There are some students that I have no particular reason to dislike or distrust, yet on a subconscious level, I find myself getting anxious when they touch Lance." She goes on to tell Georgia that in the case of a particular student, "Lance didn't like her."

     In an earlier book, Georgia visited a traveling carnival to investigate Sid's history before he became a part of the Thackery family, and in this book that same carnival is set up across the street from the college. Members of the family that owns the carnival are important both to the main plot and to a subplot that brings romance into Georgia's life. 

     We also get to meet Georgia's parents, who arrive home unexpectedly from their lengthy European sabbatical trip. 

     Once again, the pace is leisurely, almost tranquilizing in its effects on this reader. Mostly, we watch Georgia and her family eat a LOT of meals—for example, breakfasts of pancakes, sausage, bacon, and/or omelets; lunches of sandwiches, salads, burgers, chips, and cookies; and dinners of spaghetti, chili, pizza, steaks, and Chinese-take-outeven deep-fried, high-cholesterol carny delicacies. It's probably best not to read this book when you're extremely hungry or after you have indulged in a huge meal. Almost every single meal is either mentioned in passing or described in great detail. This over-attention to food does nothing to advance the plot or provide insights into the characters (except that at one point Georgia resents her father's takeover of the kitchen, which has been hers all the while her parents were gone). Mostly this seems like padding to fill the book with enough pages to push it almostbut not quiteto the 300-page mark that generally separates a novel from a novella. Also contributing to the padding is a section dedicated to carny lingo. Perry drops this discourse on slang into the narrative in one big chunk and then goes back to the story. The information contributes nothing to the plot and slows down the pace even more. 

     In an online interview, Perry states that her book contract was for just three novels, so the future of this series is uncertain. Click HERE to read that interview on The Big Thrill blog. Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Skeleton Haunts a House


     Every family has skeletons in their closets, but the family featured in this series has an actual skeleton—an ambulatory one—living in their attic. On her web site, the author explains how she got the idea for this cozy mystery series: "I was inspired by old TV shows like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir to write about a world that's pretty much like the real one, with one key difference. In this case: Sid." In an on-line interview, the author discusses how she came to place a skeleton at the center of her new series: "I think I was considering the idea that there have been some great vampire mysteries, wizard mysteries, werewolf mysteries, faerie mysteries…What was left in the paranormal world? Surprisingly, the field for skeleton mysteries was wide open." 

     The skeleton's name is Sid, and he has lived in the Thackery family's attic for 30 years after following Georgia Thackery home from a carnival in which he had been serving as part of a haunted-house exhibit. Sid's first memory is seeing six-year-old Georgia in danger at the carnival and stepping in to save her. Before that moment, he remembers nothing, not even his name. (Georgia named him Sid.) Outside the immediate family, no one knows of Sid's existence.

     Sid is a magical, ambulatory skeleton: He can walk, talk, watch TV, read books, make jokes (mostly about bony body parts), and generally carry on like a normal human being. Unlike a human being, though, Sid's bones are not connected to one another, and he has the ability to allow them to fall into a heap and then to pull them back together again. If Sid (or someone else) removes his head, he can still talk and see and hear. Even if his head is moved far away from the rest of his bones, he can still control them completely. None of these extraordinary skeletal abilities are explained, so it's best just to accept them as magical and move on from there. Ironically, Sid doesn't believe in magic: "Call me a skeptic, but I'd rather believe in random chance than anything supernatural." (p. 115)

     Georgia Thackery, the series heroine, is a single mother of a teen-age daughter named Madison. Georgia's parents are university professors, and her sister, Deborah, owns her own locksmith business. Georgia became pregnant with Madison at the end of her final year in college, so she missed out on getting a tenure-track job in the years just after her graduation. For the past decade or so, Georgia has moved from campus to campus as an adjunct professora term used to describe academics hired on an as-needed basis and receiving extremely low pay with no benefits. Adjuncts teach the classes that tenure-track professors don't want to teach: mostly undergraduate introductory courses. As the series opens, Georgia has just about given up on ever getting a secure, tenure-track job. 

                      NOVEL 1:  A Skeleton in the Family                       
     As the first book opens, Georgia and Madison have moved into Georgia's parents' home in small-town Massachusetts while Mom and Dad are away on sabbatical. Georgia has snagged an adjunct position at McQuaid University, where her parents are tenured professors. Although Sid is glad to have Georgia back in the family home, he is still slightly hurt that she left him behind when she went off with Madison on her adjunct travels. Sid refuses to reveal himself to Madison, and his reason for this remains a puzzle until he explains it at the end of this book.

     When Georgia accompanies Madison to an anime-con, Sid convinces Georgia to let him dress up as the skeletal Shinigami from Soul Eater and come along on the outing. At the con, Sid recognizes a woman he knew back when he was alive. He doesn't know the who-what-when-where-why; he just knows that he has seen her before and that the sight of her engenders in him feelings of both guilt and fear. The primary plot follows Georgia and Sid as they use personal, professional, and Internet connections to figure out the identity of the woman and her relationship to Sid. When the woman is murdered early in the story, their urgency to solve the mystery increases.

     The mystery plot moves along steadily, but slowly, as the author spends some time settling Georgia into her new group of fellow adjuncts. That group includes an old friend, an old flame, a new flame, and a mean girl, all of whom have supporting parts in the solution to the mystery. The descriptions of an adjunct's pitiful existence are fascinating. Although I knew that being an adjunct isn't a bed of roses, I had no idea how depressing and debilitating life can be for these hard-working, long-suffering academic wannabes. Also fleshed out is the relationship between Georgia and Madison, which is much more friendly and loving than you'd expect, given that Madison has been yanked from one place to another all through her childhood due to her mother's ever-fluctuating job situations.

     Perry is a good storyteller, and her characters are well developed and sympathetic. I'd have enjoyed the story more if there had been some sort of explanation for Sid's magical abilities to talk (without vocal cords), see (without eyes), hear (without ears), and disassemble/reassemble at will. Perhaps a curse. Or an errant genetic trait. Anything would do. Without that explanation, my disbelief kept refusing to stay suspended. 

     Click HERE to read an excerpt from A Skeleton in the Family. The second novel will feature another murder mystery, this one involving a high school production of Hamlet, with Sid playing—of course—Yorick.

                       NOVEL 2:  The Skeleton Takes a Bow                       
     After decades of hiding out in the attic, Sid the Skeleton is finally going to get some public attention. Madison has volunteered Sid’s head for the part of Yorick (as in “Alas, poor Yorick…”) in her high school production of Hamlet. Madison carries Sid to school each day in an old bowling bag, but one night she forgets to bring him home. That night, as Sid is lying in his bag backstage in the school auditorium, he overhears a conversation between two men that ends in the murder of one of them. When Sid reports his experience, Georgia believes him but Madison does not. When no body is found, Georgia and Sid don’t have much to go on, and even though Georgia makes some anonymous calls to the police, they don't pay much attention because there is no evidence that a crime has been committed. The rest of the book follows Georgia and Sid as they attempt to figure out the identities of the two men and solve the murder case, all without blowing Sid’s skeletal cover.

     Although the story is well plotted, it moves at such a leisurely and tension-free pace that I found my attention wandering. The clues come together very slowly and without much drama. In connection with the murder plot, the author weaves in a diatribe against the SAT tests with quite a few scenes that include mini-rants against the tests: what they do and do not measure, what colleges should use instead of the SAT to screen prospective students, and the problem with cheating. (Incidentally, I completely agree with the author's SAT stance.) At first, the SAT rhetoric is O.K., but it soon seems to be getting more emphasis than the murder investigation. Even though the SAT story thread eventually becomes important to the central murder plot, the testing debate slows the pace down to a crawl. 

     By scattering plenty of red herrings throughout the story, the author creates a likely group of suspects. One of the villains, though, was obvious (to me, anyway) from his first appearance, although his murky motivations are not clear until one of the final scenes. Eventually, there is a brief moment of danger for one member of the Thackery family, but you can be sure that Sid has his own bone-rattling way of handling that situation.

A Norman Rockwell
     In this book, the Thackery family is even cozier than in book 1. They represent an idealized, Norman Rockwell version of small-town America with their relatively comfortable (albeit budget conscious) life style, typically American diet (e.g., sloppy joes, spaghetti, chicken Parmesan), and an almost total lack of angst (except for Georgia's endless yearning for tenure and her constant need to sooth the "sibling" rivalry between Sid and Madison). Georgia is the mother every teen wants: patient, even-tempered, non-judgmental, and endlessly understanding. She is like a younger Miss Marple, if Miss Marple had a daughter and a walking, talking skeleton in her attic. If you are looking for a well-written cozy mystery series with just a touch of the paranormal (in the person of Sid), you’ll probably enjoy this book (and series). Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Skeleton Takes a Bow.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for such a well-thought-out post about my Family Skeleton series. I really appreciate how much time this must have taken.

    I am sorry that you felt it was missing a needed element, meaning the explanation of why Sid the skeleton exists. Leaving out that explanation was definitely a conscious decision on my part. There are a few hints--what happened to Sid's family from when he was alive coupled with the suggestion that he's a ghost haunting his own skeleton--but I didn't want to go into more detail. My view is that there's really no way for Georgia or Sid to know, and it's not what the book is about. But I can see why that would bother some readers.

    It's really to your credit that you gave the book such a thorough review despite something that was clearly a barrier for you.

    Yes, I am working on THE SKELETON TAKES A BOW, in which Sid plays Yorick. Just be warned that I'm still not going to be explaining why Sid is Sid.