Byrne, Kerrigan. The Business of Blood. [United States]: Oliver-Heber Books, 2019.
Paperback | $9.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1700310286 | 296 pages | Historical Mystery
I received a copy of this book from the author in a giveaway and have voluntarily chosen to post a review. All opinions are my own.
The Business of Blood is perhaps Kerrigan Byrne at her best. Known for her dark, atmospheric, writing style, it’s almost mind boggling that she didn’t write a historical mystery sooner. And now that she has, it definitely delivers, presenting all the intensity readers may expect from her books, but in a slightly different way.
I enjoyed the heroine, Fiona. I love her devotion to getting justice for her slain friend by finding Jack the Ripper, ending up mixed up in solving a similar murder. And the way she is connected to the “business” of murder through her occupation was both “fun” (if you can call it that?) and interesting.
There were a ton of twists and turns, leading up to the great reveal of the bad guy. I’m definitely anxious to see how her further adventures unfold, given the way this one ends.
This is a unique historical mystery, utilizing the atmosphere of Victorian London during the time of the Ripper murders to create an engaging story.
Goss, Theodora. European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. New York: Saga Press, 2018.
Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1481466530 | 708 pages | Fantasy
I enjoyed the previous installment, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, so much, I was glad that I had the foresight to also pick up the second book, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. I was a bit concerned about it being nearly double the length of book one, and upon reading, did find some areas where I felt the story did lag a bit, particularly toward the end, with the moment that felt like the climax being succeeded by a rather long and drawn-out conclusion.
The book also does feel a little slower than the previous one, with the action being split into two parts: London to Vienna, then Vienna to Budapest, instead of confining the action to a single location. While that did lend itself to some of the pacing issues, I feel the characters and their growing dynamics within one another more than made up for it, with a lot of humor (particularly in the interstitial conversations) to keep me laughing and a reasonable amount of action to keep the pages turning.
There are also more interesting introductions of literary characters, particular Mina Murray Harker and Count Dracula, the former of whom was already pretty interesting in the context of the original due to the way she was described, but is given a much more satisfying fate, especially for those who love the romanticized depictions of her relationship with the Count. There are also hints of romantic interests for the main Athena Club ladies, and while they are still subtle, I am excited to see how they develop, especially given that this topic elicited some great commentary on the part of the ladies amongst each other.
While this one has more flaws in terms of the mechanics than the previous book, it is still an enjoyable book purely for the excellent characterization and the continued tribute to Gothic literature. I once again recommend this series to fans of Victorian Gothic literature, or lovers of historical fantasy.
Goss, Theodora. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. New York: Saga Press, 2017.
Hardcover | $24.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1481466509 | 402 pages | Fantasy
I randomly heard about The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter through an advertisement at the end of another book, something that hasn’t happened in a while, but I was immediately intrigued by the idea of the daughters/creations of famous Victorian Gothic literary figures, not to mention Sherlock and Watson. And while I have not read all the books the characters come from, I appreciated how well each major character’s backstory was explained, while also showing some recognizable differences in the narrative arcs to give the characters more agency.
And this is just pure fun. Given the mystery and monster elements, it does get a bit gritty, but it was ultimately a fun ride that I zipped through in a matter of hours, with lots of questions left open that kept me intrigued to immediately pick up the next one.
The writing style does take a bit of getting used to, because, in between the actual narrative and plot, there will consistently be interruptions from the characters, commenting on the text itself, uner the pretext that the book itself is one they’re collaboratively writing, which is made even odder by third person for most of the book, and the revelation of an external narrator making themselves fully known at the end. However, it is such a fun and quirky book, I just kind of went with it after a while. But I can see why some might find the style a little jarring.
This is a delightful homage to 19th century Gothic literature, and meshed together in such a natural way too. I’m sure other fans of those clssics who are looking for a new take on them would love them.
Barron, Stephanie.dind That Churchill Woman. New York: Ballantine Books, 2019.
Hardcover | $28.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524799564 | 387 pages | Historical Fiction
I picked up That Churchill Woman in my continued pursuit of more books about the Gilded Age and the “Dollar Princesses,” and was also intrigued at the connection to Winston Churchill, who I had heard about in connection to British history, especially World War II, but didn’t know much about beyond that.
While Jennie is by no means a woman with a perfect reputation, engaging in affairs with other men in high places, including with an Austrian nobleman, Charles Kinsky, she also had an awareness of what was considered acceptable at the time in society, supporting her husband’s political ambitions and staying with him in spite of any setbacks. And while Winston himself doesn’t play a major role, given that at the time the story is set, he is still growing up and getting his education, by the end of the book, it is wonderful to see that not only is he about to follow in his father’s footsteps by going into politics (which of course he does), but Jennie is prepared to support him in the same way she supported her husband.
This is a rich historical novel about a remarkable woman who I think should be discussed more in the context of Winston Churchill’s life and work. And it is definitely a treat I would recommend to other fans of historical fiction.
Willig, Lauren. The Summer Country. New York: William Morrow, 2019.
Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062839022 | 464 pages | Historical Fiction
Lauren Willig has always been one of my favorite authors when it comes to dual-timeline novels, and one of the few who consistently does them right. And The Summer Country is another winner in that regard. With two distinct, well-drawn and interconnected arcs that lead into each other so well that you never feel like you are left hanging in either, and compelling characters on both sides, I found myself initially confused as to how it would all fit together, only to find myself floored as I finished and it all came together in such a beautiful way.
One of the highlights of the 1810s story arc for me was the exploration of slavery and race relations, a topic which Willig definitely seems to have done a lot of research on, if her author’s note is any indication, along with providing some interesting research books for further reading. Given that I expressed interest recent scholarship surrounding the analysis of master-slave relationships in a previous review, I was impressed both to see Willig to depict it so sensitively in Charles and Jenny’s relationship, the consequences of it, and the lengths they went to to keep their own offspring from being born into slavery and discuss her inspiration for their relationship as well as addressing the doubt as to whether the relationship was one of love or “whether she merely submitted to him” (450) It adds a lot of necessary nuance to the conversation surrounding race relations in this regard.
I don’t have as strong sentiments to express about the 1854 arc. I felt Emily was an interesting enough character to follow, but given the nature of the book’s structure, the standout elements for me were seeing if I could figure out how the two arcs were connected, and it fulfilled that incredibly well.
This is a compelling historical fiction read that kept me entertained and guessing as to how it all fit together. I would recommend it to other historical fans, especially those who love multi-timeline stories.
Johnston, E.K. That Inevitable Victorian Thing. New York: Dutton Books, 2017.
Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1101994979 | 327 pages | Speculative Fiction
That Inevitable Victorian Thing is great conceptually, if controversial, re-imagining a world in which many of the atrocities of the last nearly two centuries did not happen, due to radical changes in the direction of Queen Victoria’s reign that deviates from the historical record. However, it is one of those books that suffers from the issue of pushing diversity into the story for the sake of it, and not bothering to make the characters otherwise interesting. Between this, the uber-slow pace where nothing much happens for at least the first half, and the usage of ominiscient point of view that hops randomly between characters, this book was more jarring than moving.
The one aspect of diversity that I felt was done slightly well was the buildup to the reveal about a particular character’s gender identity. The reveal is foreshadowed in a somewhat interesting way, and I did sort of like how the futuristic tech played into the reveal.
In the end, however, the only parts I consistently enjoyed were the interstitial bits that established the world and its history, especially the ones concerning Queen Victoria and her kids. I found myself wishing I was reading more about them than the largely boring main characters.
This on the whole wasn’t an enjoyable book for me, given the mishandling of the issues it claims to tackle and failing to flesh out the characters beyond them being “diverse.” I’m not sure if I can enthusiastically recommend it, but I will say that if you enjoy decent, if flawed, world building, this might be a book worth checking out to see if it works better for you.
Gaynor, Hazel. The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter. New York: William Morrow, 2018.
Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062869302 | 398 pages | Historical Fiction
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter is another rich and emotional novel from Hazel Gaynor, which once again exposed me to a historical event and historical figure I was not aware of before, and managing to engross me so perfectly in two interconnected storylines in different time periods. Often, one of the flaws with dual timeline novels is that one timeline is lacking, but that was not the case, with each adding to the richness of the other.
The 1838-42 storyline following Grace was beautiful in expressing what the real Grace may have gone through, having to deal with such unexpected fame, while also capturing the very human side to her as well. Gaynor compares the public’s interest in her and the way her life was cut short to the lives and deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and Princess Diana, but like them, Grace Darling had human emotions, and I love Gaynor’s respect for that.
The timelines connect in a number of interesting ways, but one of my favorites was the way both Grace and Matilda were impacted by going through disaster, although their situations were different at first, and they lived a hundred years apart. Their strength of character through the hardships they’ve been through and the choices they’ve had to make is also admirable.
I would recommend this to those who love beautiful, atmospheric historical fiction.
Ashley, Jennifer. Scandal Above Stairs. New York: Berkley, 2018.
Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0399585531 | 309 pages | Historical Mystery
Scandal Above Stairs, the second installment in Jennifer Ashley’s historical mystery series, is another great book, in large part due to the great cast of characters and the camaraderie between them. The growing bond between Kat and her assistant, Tess, and consistent friendship-with-just-a-hint-of-something-more-beneath-the-surface between Daniel and Kat were some of the highlights of the book. And I love how the plot allowed for some reveals about Daniel’s past as well, allowing me to get closer to him as a character.
I also somewhat enjoyed the twists and turns brought on by the mystery this time around. While I wasn’t as pulled in by that aspect as I was with the first book, there were still aspects I loved like the use of misdirection which led to the unexpected reveal of the killer at the end.
I think fans of Jennifer Ashley’s writing, and fans of historical mysteries would love this book.
Raybourn, Deanna. A Treacherous Curse. New York: Berkley, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-451-47617-3. $26.00 USD.
After enjoying the first two installments in the series, I was excited to read the third, especially to see how things continued to devlop between Veronica and Stoker. And while they’re still very firmly in the “will-they-or-won’t-they” stage, there are a lot more sparks this time around, especially as the mystery once again has personal implications, this time for Stoker. It was wonderful to learn a bit more about his past, and I couldn’t help but feel sad for him, given the way things turned out between him and his ex-wife.
Speaking of which, I love the trajectory of how the mystery unfolded. It is fairly typical for the genre, starting with an obvious suspect, and then probing deeper until the big reveal at the end, but I loved reading about the many different dramas between the cast of characters that could have motivated one character or another’s involvement in the murder and/or the Anubis hoax.
Additionally, I must commend Deanna Raybourn for her incredible, often witty writing, which is particularly on point in this installment right from the opening lines, to several other memorable quotes in between. One of my favorites was one done in homage to Jane Eyre: “Reader, I carried him.” (182)
Ashley, Jennifer. Death Below Stairs. New York: Berkley, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-399-58551-7. $15.00 USD.
Jennifer Ashley once again proves she is a versatile writer with Death Below Stairs, a first (of a sort) into something new for her. And while the book does have its shortcomings, this is a solid book on its own and as a first in series.
However, despite its declaration of being the first book, there was a lot in terms of the relationship between Kat and Daniel I felt I missed out on due to not having read the prequel novella, A Soupçon of Poison. However, as I got to know the characters in this book, I came to love them, even if some of their actions seem a little bit improbable. Despite it not being primarily a romance, I liked the beginnings of a romantic arc between Kat and Daniel, and look forward to where it goes next. I also liked that Ashley examines class differences in a different way than she or any other historical author I have read has done before. As a cook, Kat has relative freedom and mobility if something tragic should happen, but women like Lady Cynthia are dependent on their relatives with no proper way to earn their livelihood.
The mystery element brought together a number of plot threads, like the plight of a maid in a household at the hands of their master, the relationship between longtime servants with the family, and the contentious relationship between the British government Ireland. All of these factors played roles in the case, but even as each plot thread unfurled, I found myself still unaware of who was behind the murder until the end, which I attribute to skillfull use of misdirection.But the ultimate resolution for the culprit, while ultimately a little unfair, felt in keeping with the established arc for their character.