Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

watchmaker of filigree street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

 

Thaniel Steepleton is a low-level telegraphist with the British Home Office. One morning, after a long night shift, he finds a mysterious package sitting on his bed. Inside is a watch he is unable to open, though he can hear the clockwork moving inside. Forgetting about the mysterious watch as the months go by, Thaniel is drawn with the rest of the government into investigating bomb threats being made by Irish Nationalists. When the watch saves him from such a blast, Thaniel is determined to get to the bottom of the timepiece’s mystery. Seeking out the maker of the piece, a Japanese Baron turned watchmaker, Thaniel finds a quiet, unassuming man. As events continue, it appears more and more that Keita Mori is hiding something. Thaniel must weigh his growing regard for the kindly Mori with his increasing suspicion that he may be at the center of the bombings in London.

This is a neat little book, and took me down unexpected paths. In the interests of keeping my reviews spoiler free, I won’t elaborate any more on the plot here, but suffice to say that having started the book, I could not have predicted where it would wind up. There are elements of fantasy and steampunk in this story, but these aspects don’t seem intrusive, which is a fairly easy trap to fall into in this genre. Rather, the book felt like a historical mystery, with the more fantastical elements providing a gilding along the edges.

The characters of Thaniel Steepleton and Keita Mori are richly drawn. Mori, especially, is well done. As the plot weaves on, we come to regard both he and Thaniel as sympathetic characters, yet we are left guessing until the very end of the book whether or not Mori is a villain.

Fans of historical mystery, steampunk, or historical fantasy will find a great deal to like in this book. The book lies somewhere between the historical-with-a-bit-of-supernatural Lady Julia Grey series by Deanna Raybourn, and the vividly steampunk Magnificent Devices series by Shelly Adina.

 

Book Review: Alice and the Assassin by R.J. Koreto

Alice and the Assassin by R.J. Koreto

Alice Roosevelt was the daughter of US President Theodore Roosevelt. Born into the heights of New York Society, and thrust further into the spotlight as a member of the first family, Alice was a determined rebel in an age where proper behavior was paramount for well heeled women. Fiercely intelligent and chafing at the limitations placed upon her by society, Alice drank, smoked, and drove in cars with men. She imposed herself on her father’s policy meetings, offering political advice and helping in diplomatic meetings. Theodore Roosevelt once famously said, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”

R.J. Koreto brings this remarkable woman to life in the historical mystery Alice and the Assassin. Koreto is an old hand at historical mysteries, his Lady Frances Ffolkes series features another strong (and fictional) heroine, and is quite a fun read (you can read my review of Death Among Rubies here).

This book, hopefully the first of several, features seventeen-year-old Alice and her Secret Service bodyguard, Joseph St. Clair. The year is 1902, and Theodore Roosevelt has recently ascended to the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz. Alice, wishing to satisfy her own curiosity about the incident, decides to seek out famous anarchist, and associate of Czolgosz, Emma Goldman. However, this meeting seems to disturb powerful factions within the local community, and soon Alice and St. Clair find themselves embroiled in a wide-reaching conspiracy which may threaten another president.

I am a fan of Koreto’s previous work and this book did not disappoint. Alice is well realized, both as a vulgarity-slinging iconoclast and a sheltered seventeen year old who wants to protect her family. Historical details are sprinkled throughout with satisfying accuracy, and those aspects which are fictionalized for the plot roll nicely into the feel of the era.

The book begins with some stutters as the author introduces us to the protagonists and the world they inherit, but rapidly finds its footing. The pacing is splendid, with enough narrative false trails and red herrings to make for an enjoyable mystery. The plot, while fictional, is based on real events, and the final solution to the plot feels a bit too possible for comfort.

In all, fans of historical mysteries will enjoy this book. I would recommend Alice and the Assassin to fans of Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mystery Series, Deanna Raybourn‘s books,  or the Maisie Dobbs series. Anyone looking for an engaging book featuring a strong female protagonist will also enjoy this book.

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

Book Review: Wages of Sin by Katie Welsh

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The Wages of Sin by Katie Welsh

In 1892, the University of Edinburgh began to admit female medical students. The pushback from both faculty and the male student body was immense. Indeed, society itself looked down on these women as unfeminine and broken. Enter Sarah Gilchrist, banished from London after bringing scandal to her family name. Cut adrift and dependent on the good graces of Scottish relatives, Sarah is determined to make her own way as a female physician. In order to get practical training, Sarah volunteers at a charity infirmary in the slums. The work is hard, and the prejudices of society are increasingly difficult to bear. However, Sarah is doing well with her studies and her work until one day she recognizes the corpse in her anatomy class as her patients at the infirmary. . .

I always like a good historical fiction, and this one did not disappoint. Welsh does a great job of demonstrating the fine line these medical pioneers would have to walk between Victorian propriety and their dreams of higher education. The hypocrisy of their male counterparts is also brilliantly illustrated. Welsh also does well with her main protagonist, Sarah Gilchrist. The lasting physical and mental trauma from her “scandal” feels very real. While you may occasionally want to reach through the page, shake her, and yell “think before you speak,” she is overall a very sympathetic character. The mystery aspect of the book was well paced, with the requisite red herrings and plot twists.

Fans of historical murder mysteries will find a lot to like in this book, which feels like the first of a series. Historical fiction or murder mystery fans in general will likely also enjoy the book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Wages of Sin will be available for purchase on March 14th, 2017.

Book Review: A Bridge Across the Ocean by Susan Meissner

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A Bridge Across the Ocean by Susan Meissner

There are three narratives in play in this book. The first is Brette Caslake, a woman living in modern-day San Diego. Brette can see and talk with ghosts, though she has been trying to supress this aspect of herself since she was a little girl. The second is Simone Deveraux, a French Resistance fighter. The third is Annaliese Lange,a former ballerina fleeing from her Nazi husband.

Simone and Annaliese are thrown together on the RMS Queen Mary as it steams across the Atlantic in 1946 to reunite European war brides with their American husbands. But the secrets both women must keep simmer under the surface, and only one woman will get off the ship in New York. Meanwhile in the present day, Brette is investigating the Queen Mary as a favor to an old friend. She encounters a spirit on the ship which points her towards the half-century-old mystery . . .

I’m of two minds regarding this book. The stories of Simone and Annaliese are very well done. Each woman is given a unique voice, and their histories are compelling; the mystery surrounding their fatal voyage is engaging. You wind up caring deeply about the fate of both these women.

In contrast, Brette’s modern day storyline feels flat and tacked on. Her story feels like it exists solely as a tool to push the 1940s narrative along, and even then it feels unnecessary; Simone and Annaliese’s story could have been told entirely without the present-day narrative. The idea of a woman who can speak with ghosts is intriguing, but the end result here is unsatisfying. Brette allows herself to be bullied into investigating the haunted ship, all the while dealing with a husband who may or may not think she’s insane, but is trying to push her into having children anyway. Brette’s fears about motherhood, and passing on her unwanted ability onto her children are summarily brushed aside by her husband, and his acceptance (or lack thereof) of her abilities are never really resolved. I found the entire thing to be aggravating, and I found myself flipping past the chapters which featured Brette in favor of finding out what happened to the women in 1946.

In all, this is not a bad book, but I can’t help feel that the modern day narrative detracts from the overall story. Still, the book is worth checking out for Simone and Annaliese’s stories, and other readers may not find Brette’s storyline so off-putting.

An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. A Bridge Across the Ocean will be available for purchase on March 7th, 2017.

Book Review: A Quiet Life in the Country by TE Kinsey

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A Quiet Life in the Country by TE Kinsey

Welcome to Littleton Cotterell,a small village in Glouchestershire. The year is 1908, and Lady Emily Hardcastle and her intrepid maid, Florence Armstrong, are looking to settle in to the nice, quiet, retired life after several years spent adventuring around the world.

Naturally, such plans are always disrupted. In this case, the two women discover a dead body hanging from a tree while out on a morning walk. The death is meant to appear as a suicide, but certain inconsistencies seen to point more towards murder. With the local constabulary over their heads, Lady Hardcastle and Flo must draw on their previous experiences to solve the murder before anyone else gets hurt.

The mystery goes off in fairly expected fashion, with the eccentric and kindly Lady Hardcastle relying on her witty and resourceful maid. There are suspicious characters and red herrings aplenty. And, naturally, the initial mystery gets wrapped up in several others in the course of the book.

I will say this for A Quiet Life in the Country: it does not take itself too seriously. The usual tropes of the cozy mystery are addressed with a wink and a nudge (such as one character explaining to Lady Hardcastle that the tiny, 30 person village she just moved to is actually the murder capital of the country). I appreciate the effort made to acknowledge all the commonly used bits that go into a cozy murder mystery, and it certainly helped to dispel a feeling of deja vu.

In all, if you’re looking for a nice, quick mystery with not one but two strong female leads, you could do far worse than to join Flo and Lady Hardcastle on their adventures.

A free copy of this book was provided via Goodreads Givaways in exchange for an honest review. A Quiet Life in the Country is currently available for purchase (and, at the time of this writing, free via Kindle Unlimited).

Book Review: Death Among Rubies by R.J. Koreto

Death Among Rubies RJ Koreto.jpg

Death Among Rubies by R.J. Koreto

This is the second in the Lady Frances Ffolkes mystery series. But don’t be too put out; this is a perfectly enjoyable book even if you haven’t read the first.

At the turn of the 20th century, Lady Frances Ffolkes (Franny to her friends) has turned every head in aristocratic English society. She is a single woman living alone, and perhaps most scandalous, an outspoken suffragist. Frances wades in where others fear to tread, bolstered by her sharp wit and fearless demeanor.

Death Among Rubies finds Frances traveling with her friends Gwen and Thomasina to Gwen’s family’s country estate for a respite from the city. The trip starts off on an ignominious foot when Thomasina finds herself threatened for her “close relationship” with Gwen. Upon arriving at the country manor, the situation deteriorates fully: Gwen’s father has been killed, stabbed to death in his own office. And what’s more, his role as unofficial ambassador for England means that his death could have international repercussions  for England itself.

It’s up to Frances, assisted by Gwen, Thomasina, and her indomitable maid, Mallow, to uncover the truth behind the murder, because other lives most certainly hang in the balance.

I really enjoyed this mystery. Lady Frances is a fun, engaging focal character, reminiscent of Lady Julia Grey or Veronica Speedwell (both excellent characters written by Deanna Raybourn). Those looking for a grand manor murder mystery will enjoy this book.

An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Death Among Rubies will be available for purchase on October 11th, 2016.

Book Review: The Orphan Mother by Robert Hicks

The Orphan Mother Robert Hicks

The Orphan Mother: A Novel by Robert Hicks

The Orphan Mother is set in 1867; two years after the end of America’s Civil War and solidly in the reconstruction era. At this point in time, the country, and especially the southern states, were poised on the blade of a knife. The hope of the newly emancipated former slaves warred with the intransigence of their former masters, each seeking to pull the country down a different path. It was a time of possibility and exquisite danger. A time when, theoretically, black men were as free as their white counterparts, but the reality of their status remained mired in the past.

Into this simmering brew Robert Hicks draws Mariah Reddick, former slave, now midwife in the small town of Franklin, Tennessee. Mariah, world weary and suspicious of the future, nevertheless seeks to build an independent life for herself in the town where she has spent most of her adult life. Mariah’s son, Theopolis, embodies all the hope and promise of this time period. He works as a cobbler, but has aspirations of becoming a politician, and representing his people and their needs in the newly reunited country. We also meet George Tole, former sniper with the Union army, drifting through life after the war, finding it increasingly difficult to live as a regular person after what he has seen and done in battle.

When a riot breaks out at a political rally where Theopolis is giving a speech, Mariah is drawn in against her will into the world of politics and corruption, murder and injustice. Where the hopes and the dreams of black men crash against the wall of white racism.

Robert Hicks writes this era masterfully and lyrically. You can almost smell the dust on the roads, feel the heat on your skin. You can see the angry men “with bricked up faces” who are pushing so hard against change, against any perceived loss of status. In this novel Hicks illustrates the tensions between blacks and whites, between former master and slave. We see how the nature of justice can warp and change, especially when race and/or gender conspire to place you at the bottom of the social strata.

This book, though a work of historical fiction,reverberates in the present day. We find these echoes in Ferguson, Missouri, in Philando Castle and Trayvon Martin, and other victims of racially-motivated violence, in the work of the Black Lives Matter Movement. This is a story that deserves to be read. That helps to link the inequities of our past to our present day. Robert Hicks has written a spectacular story, one that seems at once very far away and very, very close.

An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. The Orphan Mother will be available on September 13th, 2016.

Book Review: The White Mirror by Elsa Hart

White Mirror Elsa Hart

The White Mirror by Elsa Hart

 

This is the second book in Elsa Hart’s Li Du mystery series. Disclaimer: I did not read her first book: Jade Dragon Mountain before reading this one. However, The White Mirror stands alone enough that the book is quite enjoyable by itself.

The story takes place in China in 1708. We find Li Du, former librarian of the Forbidden City, traveling with a caravan through the high mountain passes that separate China from Tibet. As the weather sets in and the caravan is beset by a snow storm, they find themselves traversing a bridge to an isolated estate, and the only shelter for miles around. On the bridge a monk sits waiting. It is only when the party draws close that they can see the monk is dead, his face painted with pagan symbols, and his hand still gripping the knife that has ripped open his belly. Over the next several days, while the caravan and other travelers are snowed in together at the remote estate, it falls to Li Du to unravel the mystery of the dead monk.

Elsa Hart writes a good, evenly paced mystery. The setting is compelling. You can almost hear the snow crunch under the characters shoes, and you can imagine the vast and almost otherworldly beauty that the mountainous borders of China must have to offer. The characters are varied in their motivations and several good suspects come to our attention throughout the book. This is also a mystery written in a way I personally find satisfying: the clues are all there. As the reader you are aware of everything Li Du is. The mystery, when solved, is solidly based on what came before, not seemingly pulled out of the ether at the last second. Additionally, Hart does a good job of disguising what is important, with no overdone advertisement of the clues.

In all, this is an enjoyable mystery in a fabulous setting. I find myself intrigued enough that I will more than likely go back and read the first novel in the series.

An advanced copy of this book was provided by the publisher, Minotaur Books, in exchange for an honest review. The White Mirror is scheduled for release on September 6th, 2016.

 

 

Book Review: A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn

A Perilous Undertaking (Veronica Speedwell, #2)

A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn

The second installment of Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell mystery series picks up soon after the first book leaves off. Tiny warning: from here on out there will probably be a few spoilers for the first book. So if you haven’t read A Curious Beginning yet, you may want to stop reading here.

We begin with Veronica and Stoker, settling in after the events of A Curious Beginning at the Belvedere, working to turn the enormous collection into a museum. The two lead characters have settled into their atypical friendship. We find the two intrepid explorers chomping at the bit over a delay in an expedition to the South Pacific when a mysterious summons arrives for Veronica.

Arriving at a social club for intellectually-inclined women, Veronica is introduced to the enigmatic Lady Sundridge. The mysterious aristocrat sets Veronica a nigh impossible task: A renowned artist, Miles Ramsforth, stands accused of murdering his mistress, and will hang for the crime in a week. Lady Sundridge is set on absolving her friend and discovering the truth behind the heinous crime.

Reluctantly taking on the case, Veronica and Stoker are plunged into the 19th century art world. With the clock ticking against them, they must navigate their way past the bohemian glamour to the darkness and debauchery beneath.

In the second book in the series, Raybourn has the luxury of moving past the origin story and is able to let the two main characters’ personalities bounce off one another. Raybourn’s strength has always been in her female protagonists: they are witty and intelligent, determined and independent, and they hold their own against their male counterparts. Veronica Speedwell is no exception. In this book, we are also introduced to Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk, great aunt to Veronica and Stoker’s patron, and my new role model.

The mystery in A Perilous Undertaking is satisfying and deliciously debauched. In additon to the main plot, Raybourn continues to drop little tidbits about both Stoker’s and Veronica’s pasts. These morsels, sparingly dispersed through the book, add extra interest and leave me a bit sad that the next installment is so far away.

In sum, this is a great read for fans of historical mysteries. I think Raybourn has hit her stride with Veronica Speedwell: the characters have a great repartee, the pacing is spot on, and the mystery consistently interesting. I look forward to seeing where Raybourn takes this series and her characters.

An advanced ebook was provided by Berkley Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review. A Perilous Undertaking is due for release Janurary 10th, 2017.

Book Review: A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

A Study in Scarlet Women (Lady Sherlock, #1)

A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

 

Charlotte Holmes has a brilliant analytical mind. Unfortunately, as a society woman in Victorian England, the outlets for her brilliance are few and far between. Her parents expect her to be perfectly respectable, and not to scare off potential suitors with her uncanny powers of observation and deduction. Seeking an independent life out from under her parents’ thumb, Charlotte concocts a scheme to take herself off the marriage market permanently. Unfortunately, things go awry and Charlotte finds herself a social pariah. She now has her independence, but little else besides her considerable wits and the clothes on her back.

And then, naturally, death. Three upstanding members of society are dead, in different parts of the country, from different causes. When Charlotte, writing under the nom de plume Sherlock, writes to the police, pointing out the suspicious nature of all three deaths, the interconnectedness of the families involved, and the likelihood of poison as the true cause of death, she unwittingly causes the suspicion for committing the murders to fall upon her sister and father. Charlotte must now use her unusual talents to uncover the identity of the real murderer in order to save her family. With the help of a childhood friend, Lord Ingram, lively widow Mrs. Watson, and police inspector Treadles, Charlotte is on the case!

I was hesitant to read this book at first. I love the idea of a gender-swapped Sherlock Holmes, but I kept envisioning all the horrible ways such an endeavor could go wrong. I began this book with a healthy amount of skepticism, and I’m delighted to say that I was pretty much completely wrong! The strength of this book is that Sherry Thomas did not take the story “A Study in Scarlet”, or the character of Sherlock Holmes, and simply insert a woman into the assigned places. Thomas has made a story, and a character, completely separate from the original Holmes and his stories, yet bearing enough nods to the original to please a hardcore fan (like me).

Charlotte Holmes is blonde and cherubic. Her vice is not cocaine or hours of sawing on the violin, but fine food and plum cake. Her demeanor is very Sherlockian, though this Miss Holmes, being a woman, has had to curb the sarcasm and sharp edges Sherlock was entitled to. Additionally, investigating a murder as a woman in Victorian England is no small feat. Charlotte must be constantly inventive in order to continue her investigation and maintain the illusion of “Sherlock Holmes” to the public and to the police.

In all, Sherry Thomas does a great job in making this story her own. She also highlights the roadblocks a brilliant woman would face in Victorian England should she attempt to do anything considered to be “unwomanly”. Thomas’ characters are interesting and her plot misdirects and folds back on itself admirably. I wound up quite liking the character of Charlotte Holmes, and I can’t wait to read her further adventures.

An advance ebook was provided by Berkley Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review. “A Study in Scarlet Women” will be available for purchase on October 18th, 2016.