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 House at Bishopsgate by Katie Hickman

The House at Bishopsgate by Katie Hickman

This is the third book in The Aviary Gate series, so there’s going to be spoilers in here for the first two books in the series.

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Merchant Paul Pindar and his wife, Celia (recently rescued from slavery in a Turkish harem) are moving back to England from Aleppo. Thrust suddenly into English high society (foaming at the mouth due to rumors of Celia’s past and a huge fortune in gemstones owned by Paul), Celia finds old traumas and anxieties reemerging, and finds herself relying on the widowed Lady Frances Sydenham to help her manage the household and reintegrate into society. As the woman becomes more and more indispensable to the household, her power over both Celia and Paul grows. What game is she playing, and what are her plans for the household and its inhabitants?

I was unaware when I started this book that there were others in the series, and let me tell you now, this is not a book you can really read on it’s own merits. There is a lot of backstory here, and as you read further and further you become aware that you have missed out on more and more.

Hickman does a great job with period detail, working in the tiny things that make a scene complete. Her descriptions of 17th century Aleppo and England, and the people who inhabit them, are well crafted and historically accurate. The story builds off of several threads, which weave together into a slow burning suspense.

So, if you’ve read the previous two books and enjoyed them, then The House at Bishopsgate is for you. If you’ve not yet started the series, then you should really go back and start from the beginning on order to get the full experience of this book.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways 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: That Last Weekend by Laura DiSilverio

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That Last Weekend: A Novel of Suspense by Laura DiSilverio

Five college friends stayed at the same castle-like bed and breakfast every year, until tragedy struck. Pushed away by suspicion and fear, and drifting further apart due to distance and time, they now barely speak to one another. Until, ten years after that fateful night, each receives an invitation to return to the Chateau du Cygne Noir for one last weekend. The demons of the past and the present join forces, and death stalks the chateau. The five friends must confront their past and rip open old wounds to finally uncover the truth.

If all this sounds like a Christopher Pike novel to you, you are not far off (old person question: do people still read Christopher Pike books? Or are you looking up his Wikipedia page right now?). I’m not sure if I’m just burned out on the psychological thriller genre, but I just couldn’t get into this book. I tried, but ultimately, I couldn’t get behind any of the main characters, and reading the book felt a bit like my middle school reads attempted an Agatha Christie radio drama.

But, maybe I’m being overly harsh. I’ve certainly been hitting the psychological thrillers harder than the whiskey recently, and I have to say, they’ve all started to look alike to me. I think too many plot twists may have turned my head. If you’re generally a fan of the genre, or you’re old enough to look back at The Midnight Club with something like nostalgia, then give this book a whirl. I’d like to know if quiet, self-conscious, jogging female protagonists have turned me into a bitter old hag.

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

Book Review: Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

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Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

Milly used to be Annie. But everything changed when she walked into a police station and told the officer on duty about her mother. Annie’s mother was a serial killer. Annie got a new foster family and a new name, and her mother is in jail.

But the trial is coming up, and Milly-Annie must face her mother one more time, must be the one who sends her away for good. But with the stress of the trial and tensions in her foster family; is Annie her own person, or simply her mother’s daughter?

This is one of those ubiquitous psychological thrillers which are all the rage these days (young people, grumble grumble). But Good Me Bad Me stands out from the pack for being a truly disturbing read. Honestly, parts of this book read more like a horror novel than a psychological thriller. I’m a fan.

Milly’s past is shown to us in flashes and snippets, with a lot left implied or unsaid. Her mother is truly a boogeyman figure, who looms dark and sinister even when Milly is supposed to feel safe. And yet, Milly’s relationship with her mother is more complicated than monster and victim. Milly hates and fears her mother, yes, but these emotions are tangled up in a truly twisted love of the person who raised her, and a desire to make her mother proud (The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne superbly explored this fucked up family dynamic).

The book loses a bit of steam for me when it goes in for all the high school drama (yes, yes, teenagers are the real psychopaths, this is old news). Though the truly horrific bullying experienced by Milly provides a great backdrop for her struggle between some semblance of normality, or the sociopathic tendencies nurtured by her mother.

In all, this book is a standout in an overcrowded genre. Those who enjoy their books dark, disturbing, and more than a bit fucked up will want to add this one to their to-read lists.

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

Book Review: A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas


A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas

This is the second Lady Sherlock book by Sherry Thomas. You should naturally expect spoilers for the first book, A Study in Scarlet Women in this review. If you haven’t yet read the first book, stop what you’re doing and read it now. I’ll wait.

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I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first book featuring Charlotte Holmes. Rather than the trite gender-swapped rehashing of the well-trod Sherlock Holmes stories, I found a smart, witty, and wonderfully realized mystery featuring not Sherlock Holmes, but a woman whose brilliant deductive mind is trapped in the body of a Victorian society lady,mwith all the attendant limitations and societal entrapment.

The second book in the series does not disappoint. Taking place shortly after the first book leaves off, we find Charlotte settling into the life of a social pariah, and enjoying the freedom that comes with being “Sherlock Holmes.” Things go a bit sideways when she is approached by the wife of Lord Ingram, her childhood friend, who is trying to track down her first love. Beyond the obvious conflicts of investigating the case without the knowledge of Lord Ingram, the further Charlotte digs into the identity and history of Lady Ingram’s former paramour, the more strangely complicated matters become. Soon Charlotte finds herself embroiled in hidden ciphers, codes within codes, blackmail plots, poisoning, and espionage. Weaving these disparate threads into a resolution will tax even her brilliant mind.

Charlotte Holmes is simply a great character. She is by no means a female stand-in for the great detective, rather it’s as if Thomas grew her from scratch; a brilliant and analytical mind on par with Sherlock Holmes, but within a person who has had to grow up adhering (to a greater or lesser degree) the societal expectations for a nineteenth-century lady of breeding. Thomas also continues to develop the characters of Mrs. Watson, Lord Ingram, Inspector Treadle, and Charlotte’s older sister, Livia. Though the supporting characters don’t get as much attention as Charlotte, there were several excellent subplots throughout the book. I was especially impressed with the characterization of Inspector Treadle, an honorable and forthright man, trying to come to grips with the existence of women who seek a measure of independence. This could easily have turned into some cliche or overdone condemnation of weak-minded men, but instead we see Treadles honestly wrestling with himself and his preconceptions.

Fans of historical mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, and the like should check out this series. If you enjoyed A Study in Scarlet Women you will likely enjoy this book as well. I cannot wait to see what Thomas does in future books in this series.

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

Book Review: Fever by Deon Meyer

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Fever by Deon Meyer

A mysterious illness swept across the world, killing off 95% of the population. Months after the disaster peaked, 13 year old Nico Storm and his father, Willem, drive across the blighted landscape of South Africa, trying to survive in a new and terrifying world. Coming to a small town with hydroelectric power equipment still intact, Nico’s father dreams of creating an ideal, rational society out of the ashes of the old world. The community grows and so do its enemies. Loyalty, honor, and optimism must wage a war against fascism, zealotry, and violence.

This is an epic book, as the post-apocalyptic genre lends itself to. The book spans years, from Nico and Willem’s first days scavenging, through to the development and success of the community that they establish. The book’s true focus is not necessarily on the post apocalyptic world, but rather on the nature of humankind itself. The book is written from Nico’s perspective, and focuses on the defining moment of his life: the murder of his father. By unwinding the story of the post-fever world and the development of a utopian community, we unravel the events which led to Willem Storm’s assassination.

This is a very human novel. There are no monsters or mutants here to provide danger, simply people. In that regard, the book strongly reminds me of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The tension and suspense come not from creepy-crawlies out to eat our protagonists, but the very very scary question about what will triumph in a global catastrophe. Will “the better angels of our nature” win the day, or will they fall to the petty evilness that lurks in the human psyche? I think it is this question which makes the post-apocalyptic genre so compelling. Can we put our faith in human nature?

This book was well written and grand in scale. The South African setting provided a new point of view for me over here in the United States. Anyone with a love for post-apocalyptic tales should check out this book.

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.