Book Review: Death at the Emerald by R.J. Koreto


Death at the Emerald by R.J. Koreto

 This is the third book in the Lady Frances Ffolkes series. Expect spoilers for the first two books in the review below!

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Lady Frances is still turning heads. Having returned to London after the events of the last book, she seeks a way to turn her experience solving mysteries into something of a detective role. Gossip having arrived before she did, Lady Frances soon finds herself helping an elderly dowager find her daughter, missing for over thirty years. Taking to the case with enthusiasm, Lady Frances and her loyal maid, June Mallow dive into the world of theatre, moving pictures, secret pacts, and mysterious stalkers. Determined to prove that she is capable of becoming a real-life “Lady Sherlock,” Lady Frances refuses to give up the hunt, even as her own safety is threatened.

I love this series. R.J. Koreto, who also writes the Alice and the Assassin series, does a great female lead. Lady Frances is forward and clever, but her intellect is human, and does not ascend the remote and reptilian heights employed by a Sherlock Holmes. Lady Frances makes mistakes, and overlooks clues, but her tenacity and quick mind generally lead her aright. As a result, the character is very relatable. Rather than feeling like the protagonist is so far beyond you as to be a separate species all together, Lady Frances is like the clever friend you always like spending time with.

June Mallow is also a lovely character. Where Lady Frances holds her strength in her boldness and willingness to write her own rulebook, Mallow finds her strength in quiet determination and an unflagging loyalty to those she loves. The relationship between both characters is the best kind of friendship, where each character’s strengths are offset by the other’s weaknesses, and vice versa. The two women may exasperate one another on occasion, but by and large they function much better together.

Fans of female-fronted mystery series will love this book. Fans of Victoria Thompson and Deanna Raybourn should definitely add this book to their TBR lists!

An advance copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson


Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson

This is the seventh book in the Josephine Tey mystery series. There’s probably going to be spoilers in this review for the previous books in the series.

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Detective Archie Penrose is called to the scene of a most unusual murder. A man has been found buried alive in a crypt in Hampstead Heath. The look of terror and the ravaged fingers of the dead man speak to hours, if not days, of torment trying to escape the crypt. Tracing a clue about the murder to Cambridge, where writer and friend Josephine Tey has recently taken up residence, Penrose finds the local constabulary overwhelmed trying to stop a series of increasingly violent rapes in the small town. When a second body is discovered, Penrose realizes that he is dealing with an incredibly intelligent, and unspeakably ruthless murderer, and his list of victims is only going to grow.

I have not read the previous books in the series, but fortunately, for the most part the book is able to stand on its own merits. There were a few instances where I felt like a reference was passing me by, or that I had missed some subtle reference, but all in all the back story is well explained without becoming laborious.

This is an interesting (and frankly creepy) mystery. The gothic elements of the main murder series, and the more visceral horror of the serial rapist combine to make the town of Cambridge feel distinctly unsettling. Upson deftly keeps the suspense high with atmospheric writing. Her portrayal of a idyllic small town in the grip of an unknown monster is well done.

The literary aspects of the mystery were especially intriguing. I had never read anything by M.R. James, but after his inclusion in the plot, I found myself a collection of his ghost stories and am looking forward to reading them now that autumn is at hand.

Fans of period mysteries (and, I’m presuming, fans of the series thus far) will find a lot to like in this book. I was surprised that a book in a series featuring a female protagonist is told mostly from the male detective’s point of view, I’m not sure if this is a departure from the regular tone of the series or not. Either way, Upson is able to craft a compelling mystery, one that will keep the reader on his or her toes.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

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The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

I’m continuing my Sherlockian trend with the first of this series by Laurie R. King!

Sherlock Holmes has retired from the life of a consulting detective to keep bees and indulge in chemistry experiments in the Sussex Downs. Mary Russell is a teenage orphan, forced to live with her penurious aunt until her majority. When the two chance to meet, Holmes is not expecting to encounter a mind equal to his, and Mary Russell is not expecting to find a mentor. This first book chronicles the first four years of their friendship.

This is the first in a series which now contains fourteen books. I’m definitely late to the party. Like most of the other Sherlock Holmes stuff I’m reading lately, the choice was inspired by From Holmes to Sherlock by Mattias Boström. The book is a series of interconnected vignettes rather than one contiguous story. In The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, we move from Mary and Sherlock’s first meeting, to their strange friendship, and the beginning of Mary’s training in the art of detection.

In Mary Russell, King has given us a heroine who is fiercely intelligent and independent, and more than a match for Holmes himself. I loved that while she shares a lot of Holmes’ personality traits, the two complement one another rather than existing as mirror-image duplicates. As with any new series, there is always the awkward getting-to-know-you period. But this is a great start to a series, and I’m quite looking forward to binging on the rest of the series.

Book Review: The Atwelle Confession by Joel Gordonson


The Atwelle Confession by Joel Gordonson

There’s something odd about St. Clements church in Atwelle, Cambridge researcher Margeaux Wood can feel it. When odd gargoyles are found carved into the eaves of the church during its restoration, her hunch seems to be confirmed. Teaming up with Don Whiby, the architect in charge of the restorations, Margeaux sets out to uncover the story behind the unique carvings. But then there is a murder, and soon another, and the pattern of the murders seems to echo the mysterious carvings in the eves. Furthermore, these murders seem to echo similar crimes committed during the reign of Henry VIII . . .

I really liked the concept of this book. The interplay between Tudor England and modern times was well done. Gordonson gives the reader a wealth of historical detail to work with, and I found the balancing act played by both church officials and highly placed citizenry during Henry VIII’s conflict with the Vatican to be truly fascinating. The mystery itself is original and interesting.

That being said, I found the execution of the book to be somewhat wanting. The characters of Margeaux and Don, and others central to the plot, feel a bit unfinished. There is little to the characters beyond the immediate needs of the story, nothing about wants, desires, or dreams beyond the gargoyles in the church. Additionally, the antagonists seem to have little motivation for being such. They are acting to foil or to harm our protagonists, yes, but why?

There are some nicely suspenseful scenes in this book, with a good creep factor to boot. But I did find that several opportunities for suspense were passed by, possibly to increase the pace of the book. The plot does move quickly, but occasionally feels like it’s stampeding along, sacrificing plot and character development in the process.

I guess my overall impression is one of haste. The plot gallops along, leaving us with quick glimpses of something fascinating. Taking the time to give the reader a bit more to work with, to flesh out the characters, the world they live in, and the (really quite interesting) central mystery would have given this book real punch.

In all, this is a fantastic idea, with a great amount of attention paid to historical detail. Gordonson is certainly able to craft a compelling story. But I feel that as written, we are seeing only the bare bones of a great story.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

 The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
This book has been drifting around my TBR for a bit. But after my recent read of From Holmes to Sherlock by Mattias Boström, I find myself moving any and all Sherlock Holmes stories up on my to-read list. This book is significant because is is one of the only stories to win the seal of approval from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate, his heirs being determined to jealously preserve the Holmes mystique. So with all that in mind, there’s a lot of pressure on Horowitz to deliver not only a good mystery, but also a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

The story begins in typical fashion, with Holmes and Watson (visiting his old friend while his wife is away) sitting in their respective chairs by the fire. Sherlock delivers his usual uncannily accurate observations on Watson’s recent activities. Watson, per usual is totally flabbergasted until the requisite explanation is offered. From there we delve into a multifaceted mystery encompassing stolen artwork, Irish gangs, Pinkerton Detectives, and threats to the Baker Street Irregulars. 

Horowitz is careful to include many of the common elements from Conan Doyle’s stories. The House of Silk, written for a modern audience, is darker and more violent than the original stories. Horowitz, not needing to contend with Victorian sensibilities, is able to lay out what Doyle only hinted at. In all, though, this is a well done addition to the Holmes canon. Fans of Sherlock Homes (duh) or Victorian mysteries should add this book to their to-read lists.

Book Review: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

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The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Another long-timer in my TBR down! Obviously after reading The Haunting of Hill House, this was the next logical step.

Arthur Kipps, up-and-coming young lawer, is sent to tend to the estate of recently deceased widow Alice Drablow. Upon arriving at the small village of Crythin Gifford, Kipps finds that the locals regarded Mrs. Drablow and her isolated manor, Eel Marsh House, with a wariness bordering on fear. Feeling rather superior to what he regards as uneducated superstition, Kipps resolves to stay overnight at Eel Marsh House, the better to complete his work efficiently. Once at the house, however, and trapped by the tide, Kipps discovers that the residents of Crythin Gifford feared the old woman and her house for good reason.

This was a truly creepy book. I’m very glad we’re into the springtime here; reading this book in the dark of winter would have been terrifying. As it was, I found myself thoroughly creeped out on more than one occasion. Hill does a great job at providing us with an unforgettable and menacing location in Eel Marsh House. The grand, ancient manor, sitting high in a desolate landscape, unreachable and inescapable during the high tide is claustrophobic and vividly unnerving. The Woman in Black herself, with her skeletally thin and bone white face, and unceasing aura of malevolence and hate is a figure out of a nightmare.

Horror fans: this is a must read! There’s an excellent reason The Woman in Black is considered a classic in the genre. Any one looking for a quick, creepy read need look no further.

A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell #1)

A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell, #1)

A Curious Beginning By Deanna Raybourn

4 out of 5 Stars

 

Deanna Raybourn definitely has a type. Strong, intelligent women, and the rakish, flawed men who trail in their wake. Since her debut with Silent in the Grave (The first in her Lady Julia Grey series), Raybourn has featured refreshingly strong female leads in her books, women who are smart and capable, yet fully human and flawed.

I certainly enjoy the theme she has set for herself, and “A Curious Beginning,” was exactly as I expect from Raybourn.

This is the first book in a new series featuring protagonist Veronica Speedwell, and takes place around the same era as her previous series (the mid 1880s). Veronica Speedwell is a woman ahead of her time, an amateur lepidopterist, willfully headstrong, searingly direct, and far too independent (not to mention an orphan of unknown parentage). Returning from the funeral of her elderly aunt, she finds a strange man has broken into her cottage, and proceeded to wreck the place in search of something. From there a fortuitous meeting with a kindly stranger (who, naturally, seems to know something about her past) whirls her to the docks of London, where we meet the tall, dark, and brooding leading man of the series, Stoker (all leading men are tall and dark for Deanna Raybourn, and they all brood professionally). When the kindly stranger winds up dead soon afterwards, Veronica and Stoker are thrown together to try to solve the mystery not only of the murder, but of Veronica’s past.

I love Deanna Raybourn’s books for a fun mystery with well-researched historical details, and witty banter between her protagonists. “A Curious Beginning” didn’t disappoint in this regard, the book was an enjoyable day and half read, and her characters, while occasionally ridiculous, generally manage to be sympathetic and interesting. Raybourn is very good at layering mysteries; Stoker seems to have quite a few secrets of his own, and is quite loathe to share. Her plot is also loaded with the prerequisite red herrings and false revelations. And, if I can speak frankly, I always love having a strong female protagonist take the lead. I’m sexist like that.

I do feel, however, that this book isn’t as strong as her Julia Grey series. Veronica Speedwell as a character is in some respects so far ahead of her time as to be anachronistic. Let’s not forget that the book is set in the latter years of Victorian England, and sometimes it seems quite impossible for a woman to get away with the things that she does in the story. At times, her character seems like someone who would be more at home in a novel set in the 1920s or 1930s. Additionally, aspects of the mystery are a bit sloppy and overly telegraphed. A reasonably astute reader has a good chance of figuring out most of the plot with 100 pages still to go. Fortunately, I generally enjoy Raybourn’s writing style, so continuing on through the plot wasn’t difficult.

In sum, if you enjoy a fun and frivolous historical mystery, this book is a good bet. I’d say take it out to the hammock or down to the beach, and enjoy a nice, relaxing read.