Still Lake
by Anne Stuart, contemporary (2002)
MIRA, $6.50, ISBN 1-55166-908-0

I am hoping that, after almost a year of silence, Anne Stuart has taken the time to come up with a really good book. Still Lake, however, is one of the most blah books I've ever read from this author - both the main characters are nonentities and the suspense is stillborn. If you are looking for the jagged bitter pill of a romance that Anne Stuart does best, ie bad boys and all, you will be buying a missile from Saddam Hussein to shoot down that UFO that has kidnapped this author.

Like most other contemporaries by this author, Still Lake has an assortment of characters long-time fans will be familiar with: a hero with a past and an attitude to match, a doormat caregiver heroine, her insufferable mother, and the sluttier foil to the heroine (this time her younger half-sister). Put in an assortment of small town small-minded religious zealot hicks but without the knowing irony of, say, a Coen brothers production, and Still Lake is Anne Stuart-lite, watered down faster than you can say "Atlantis".

Meet Sophie Darvis, a size twelve woman going on fourteen if she isn't careful with those muffins. Her mother Grace is on the brink of senile dementia, although Grace is very sane when she ruthlessly tramples the last of Sophie's almost non-existant self-esteem. Her half-sister Marty is the overly-rebellious teenage roadkill from hell. Sophie is the only one keeping the family together, but are the others grateful? Sophie's the Darvis family toilet, no flushing needed, because Sophie can clean up after everybody.

A better woman will have just walked away and leave these losers to rot. Seriously, Grace only cares whether or not Sophie is getting laid even when the world - and the family finances - is falling around everybody's ears. It's a good thing, therefore, that I'm not Sophie, or else Grace, meet parasol, and parasol, Grace.

Sophie plans to open an inn, a bed and breakfast thing in an inn still haunted by a triple murder of its teenaged, female staff two decades or so back. It's a good plan, I mean, ho, ho, ho, I'm broke, but let me buy an inn that is the site of a gruesome murder thing and watch as the tourists stay away. That will replenish the family coffers, right. And did I tell you how I let my momma and half-sister walk over me again? My name is Sophie Darvis, and I'm a vegetable doormat double combo of passivity.

There's a mysterious neighbor - John Smith. Sssh, don't tell anyone, but he's actually Thomas Ingram Griffin, who went to jail for five years for those murders. He didn't do those murders, but now he's back for some aimless tying up of loose ends. I say "aimless" because this man doesn't seem to know what he's doing half the time in this story.

Love happens, naturally. Or should I say lust, no, not even convincing lust, because these two characters have no chemistry that I can detect at all. Their relationship is monotonous - he wants, she wants, both tell readers that the other is not his/her type, repeat.

Sophie is a predictable heroine - a virgin who never even care to look at boys until the hero comes along because she is too busy looking after Mom and Sister, and there is little done here to make her stand out from the legion of Vestal Virgins In Chastity Belts Five Sizes Too Small out there. Her character motivation runs all over the place too - for example, one moment she wants Tommy here to distract her sister in that summer fling way, and next she is frantically trying to warn him away from Marty. Even more puzzling is how she wishes fervently that he has never come into her life, because then she will have time to devote herself solely to take care of her unappreciative family! (Gotta love such dedicated martyrs.) But the thing is - he's just next door, doing his own thing. If she doesn't like him, then for jeebus' sake, just ignore that guy. What's the problem? But no, Sophie is frantic - he is here and she doesn't like it, and she doesn't like it because she just wants to be the most devoted doormat in the world.

As for Tommy, I'm afraid that he's a victim of his past, not a hero who overcomes his past. He doesn't actually do anything in this story, except to whine as much as Sophie, and they go around in a circle of want/don't-want until the killer, bored no doubt, does something Really Stupid and Out of Character to bring this story to a full circle. By then, I'm beyond caring, because any reader familiar with small town nasty stereotypes will have easily figured out who the bad guy is.

That's the main problem of this story - it plays on stereotypes in such a lacklustre manner that it becomes the biggest stereotype of them all: a bad hickey town story. With lead characters that I will be hard-pressed to remember and secondary characters I will cheerfully see drown in the lake, this story is definitely one of this author's more subpar works. She's done better before, and frankly, Still Lake just doesn't have any ooomph factor.

Rating: 66

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