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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Molly Harper: "Better Homes and Hauntings"

Author:   Molly Harper
title:   Better Homes and Hauntings   
Plot Type:   Paranormal Mystery Romance
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality3; Humor—3 
Publisher:  Pocket (6/2014)  

     The story is set in the present at the Crane's Nest, a dilapidated Gilded Age mansion on an island in the Narragansett Bay near Newport, Rhode Island. The paranormal elements of the story are the ghosts of past residents of the island who can (and do) possess living people. The ghosts seem to be connected with the unsolved murder of Catherine Whitney, wife of Gerald, whose body was found in the Bay near the island 100 years ago. Rumors abound that Gerald murdered Catherine because she was having an affair with Jack Donovan, the architect who designed the Crane's Nest. 

     Supposedly, the Whitney family has been cursed since Catherine's death. After the murder, all direct descendants and even distant relatives have suffered financial ruin. The current owner of the Crane's Nest is Deacon Whitney, who is the first of the Whitney family to have overcome the curse and achieved financial success. While the ghostly mystery drives the plot, Harper also includes two budding romances and a handful of quirky characters to liven up the story.

Here is a list of the main characters:

   Deacon Whitney: a handsome dot-com billionaire with few social skills who has hired a team of experts to rehabilitate his family's century-old home.

   Jake Rumson: Deacon's friend from childhood; a handsome and charismatic architect with a penchant for womanizing; he is overseeing the entire project.

   Nina Linden: an attractive, but shy, landscape architect struggling to get her business going after enduring financial problems engineered by her former partner.

   Cindy Ellis: a lovely, but compulsive, organization specialist, who owns the Cinderella Cleaning Service and has been hired to clean out and reorganize all of the rooms in the mansion and inventory their contents.

   Dotty Whitney: Deacon's eccentric cousin, who is writing a book about the haunted history of the mansion and hopes to find diaries and other papers that will clear the name of Catherine Whitney, her great-great grandmother.  

Harper has also written three paranormal romance series: 
     Click HERE to read my reviews of the books in her NAKED WEREWOLF SERIES.  
     Click HERE to read my reviews of the books in her NICE GIRLS SERIES
     Click HERE to read my reviews of the books in her JANE JAMESON SPIN-OFF SERIES

            SUMMARY AND REVIEW            
     As the story opens, Jake is bringing Nina and Cindy to the Crane's Nest on Deacon's yacht. Both Cindy and Nina are from the Newport area, and both are familiar with the ghostly legends about the island. Just as the boat pulls up to the dock, Nina sees a woman dressed in old-fashioned clothing appear on the widow's walk and then disappear before her eyes. And so the haunting begins...

     As the work progresses, day-crew members keep quitting because they feel as if they are being watched all the time by unseen presences. They also feel cold spots, hear footsteps in unoccupied rooms, see shadowy movements in the corners, see ghostly figures, and hear a woman weeping. Nina, Cindy, and Jake also have a few ghostly experiences, some of which are violent in nature. Deacon tries to calm everyone's fears, but eventually he has his own strange experience and becomes a believer, too.

     Meanwhile, the two romances begin to develop. Deacon and Nina are both shy, geeky lonersextremely good-looking geeky lonersand they are attracted to one another almost immediately. Handsome, rich Jake flirts with beautiful, blue-collar Cindy, but she rejects him at every turnfor a very good reason. Each character has a sad back-story, some more tragic than others. Nina has a sociopathic stalker who somehow manages to turn up on the island despite Deacon's state-of-the-art security system. Unfortunately, with two romances playing out in one book, neither couple gets enough page time, resulting in tepid relationships with little chemistry between the lovers. 

     As the story plays out, Dotty and the team members try to find Catherine's diaries and her jewels. They also work on cataloging their various paranormal experiences in the mansion, hoping to figure out the identity of the ghosts and the truth behind Catherine's death. Was Catherine unfaithful to her husband? Who killed her? What happened to the architect, who was never seen again after Catherine's death? Is there really a curse? If so, who made the curse? By the end of the book, all of these questions are answered. The identity of Catherine's killer is obvious to the reader from the beginning, although the team doesn't figure it out until the very end.

     As usual, Harper includes lots of snarky dialogue and plenty of pop cultural references to liven up the story. Unfortunately, her plot has some rough transitions and a few big plot holes. Here are a few examples:

    >> The mansion has been unoccupied for many years and has been scavenged repeatedly various Whitney relatives and trespassers, but we are to believe that furniture, knickknacks, clothing, and documents are still in drawers, storage containers, and closets throughout the house. Deacon's parents owned the house when they went bankrupt. Yet, they managed to get through the bankruptcy procedure without being required to sell off the contents of the house, including many valuable antiques. This is impossible to believe.

    >> One of the ghosts possesses two different personsa good guy and a bad guy. One of the possessions makes perfect sense, but the other is unlikely and bewildering and is never fully explained.

    >> In addition to the possessing people, one or more of the ghosts creates invisible cold spots and "thick" spots in which it is difficult for a person to move and breathe. The purpose of these special effects is never made clear.

    >> The entire story of Jake's not remembering his dates with Cindy from a few years ago is shaky at best. When she finally confronts him, he unbraids her hair, fluffs it around her face, and cries, "Oh my god, it is you." (p. 188) Lame and ridiculous sit-com fluff. 

    >> In one scene, Jake and Cindy tell the rest of the team about a shared paranormal experience, and then a few pages later, they tell it again, as if their first explanation never happened. On page 157, Jake says, "Cindy and I had a, well, let's call it an episode this afternoon," and they go on to explain what happened. Then, on p. 162 in the same scene after the team has discussed the episode at some length, Cindy narrows her eyes at Jake, and he blurts out, "Fine. Cindy and I had an incident this afternoon." And he's talking about the very same episode/incident that they've been discussing for the past four pages. The scene reads as if the author wrote the original, made some edits, and then didn't check it for continuity. This should have been caught during the editing process, either by the author or her editor.

    >> The time line for the mansion is slightly off. According to Catherine's diaries, it was built in 1900, but in the book's narration, it is described as being "almost" a hundred years old. Shouldn't that be "more than" a hundred years old if the book is taking place in the present?

    >> In one scene, Jake surprises Cindy by showing her the Tiffany stained-glass ceiling of the ballroom, which she apparently has never seen, even though she and her crew cleaned the ballroom from top to bottomscrubbed the walls, cleaned the floor-to-ceiling windows, buffed the floor. Although the ceiling was draped with canvas, it is impossible to believe that Cindy did not ask what was behind the canvaseither from a cleaning perspective or from curiosity alone. This "surprise," then, is highly improbable.

     Another problem comes with the frequent switches in point of view (POV). Harper tells the story in the third person from the perspective of six different characters, and the publisher doesn't use any obvious print cues (like ✜ or §§§§§§) to provide clear visual signals that a new character is stepping in. The only cue to a POV change is an extra line space and a few words printed in capital letters. As you skim along through the story, these too-subtle cues are easy to miss, causing you to stumble a bit until you realize that, once again, the perspective has changed.

     So…the author isn't strong in plotting and details. Luckily for the reader, Harper's strength lies in her characterization. Each member of the Crane's Nest team has a well-developed personality and back-story, which is incorporated into his or her behavior and dialogue as the action plays out. One of my favorite lines in the book is Deacon's description of himself as he wonders how it is that Nina's touch can keep him calm: "Deacon's brain hadn't been calm since he'd discovered online gaming and Mountain Dew." (p. 176) I know a few guys just like that. 

     If you are looking for a marshmallowy (light and sweet) paranormal mystery with an entertaining group of characters, this would be a great beach read for you. Click HERE to go to this book's page on to read an excerpt. Just click on the cover art on that page. There is also an excerpt further down on that same page.

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