Book Review: Adrift by Brian Murphy and Toula Vlahou

Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell About It by Brian Murphy and Toula Vlahou

This is the story of a small packet sailing ship, the John Rutledge, which set off across the Atlantic from Liverpool to New York in the winter of 1856. The ship, carrying cargo and Irish emigrants, struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic, and only one soul would live to tell the tale.

There are quite a few best-selling narrative non-fiction books about famous shipwrecks, such as Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Heart of the Sea, and numerous books about the sinking of the Titanic. These ships have become legend, and the stories have a great deal of primary information and research behind them.

In Adrift, Murphy has given us a smaller tragedy. The sinking of the John Rutledge is one of many tragic stories lost on the shoals of history, and the careful research needed to bring it back into the light should be commended. Murphy has delved into private journals, newspaper clippings, family lore, and shipping records. What is more, he has compiled this information into a gripping, narrative story.

Fans of narrative nonfiction and tales of maritime derring-do will find a lot to admire in Murphy’s careful research and close attention to detail. History buffs cannot help but rejoice when another largely unknown story is pulled from the depths of the historical record.

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

Book Review: Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor

Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor

Isabel Bilton is the oldest daughter of a military family in the late 1800s. Even as a young girl, Isabel dreams of moving beyond her family’s bland, middle-class roots and becoming someone glamorous, someone important. A gifted singer and dancer, Isabel moves to London where she restyles herself as Belle Bilton and proceeds to take London by storm. Catching the eye of a young count, Belle finds herself marrying into the country’s social elite, but the peers of Britain want nothing to do with this upstart “peasant countess,” and Belle finds herself kn a fight for everything she holds dear.

This is a fictionalized account of a real woman. Belle Bilton was a woman ahead of her time. She was independent minded and self assured, yet always struggling to find her place in society. She wanted to be cherished, loved, and admired, but didn’t want to that the societally acceptable routes to get there.

O’Connor brings this fascinating woman to life in a well-researched, vividly written account. Fans of historical fiction, and real-life stories of women successfully footing Victorian convention should look no further.

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

Book Review: Who is to Blame by Jane Marlow

Who Is to Blame by Jane Marlow

This book follows the paths of two families–one noble and one serf over two and a half decades in mid 1800s Russia. Elizaveta is an intelligent and hardworking peasant girl who wants nothing more than to marry her true love (and fellow serf), Feodor. Unfortunately, societal and religious factors conspire to keep them apart. Ten we have Count Maximov, who owns the land Elizaveta’s and Feodor’s families work. We see Maximov trying to balance his family life with the modernization of Russia and the changes in the interactions between nobility and serfs.

This is a deeply-researched work of historical fiction. Russian history is a very interesting topic to me (and I would guess, many here in the west). It is always wonderful to find a historical fiction set in Russia, especially one as richly realize as this one. This is a book along the lines of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, a complex and believable work of fiction that lets the reader feel as though they are looking in on the lives of real people.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Scandal Above Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

Scandal Above Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

This is the second book in the Kat Halloway Mystery series, so this review may contain spoilers for the first book. You can always check out my review for Death Below Stairs here.


Kat Halloway has settled into her role as cook for a wealthy London family after several months of murder, mystery, and fenian plots. When a friend of Kat’s employer is accused by her husband of stealing priceless artwork, Kat finds herself drawn into the scandals and betrayals of the above stairs world. When the rash of thefts spreads to neighboring houses and the British Museum, it seems Kat has her work cut out for her. Balancing her demanding work life, prickly new assistant, devotion to her daughter, and unofficial detective duties is hard, but cooks are very good at multitasking.

This is a strong second entry into the mystery series. Kat Halloway is quite a good protagonist, smart, quick-witted, and relatable. So many Victorian-era mysteries focus on upperclass women solving mysteries, it’s nice to see the belowstairs folks get their day in the sun. Ashley has also provided us a strong secondary character in the form of Tess, Kat’s sharp-tongued new assistant. While it would have been easy to leave Tess as a surly young woman (with or without a heart of gold) Ashley takes the time to flesh her out beyond the basics and make her someone the reader wants to root for.

This is a great series for folks who dig historical mysteries. If you’ve read and liked The Gaslight Mysteries by Victoria Thompson, or the Lady Julia Grey series by Deanna Raybourn, this is a great next stop for you!

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

Book Review: Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor

Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor

In 1888, young Egyptologist Romulous Hardy is offered a vast sum of money by a reclusive millionaire to search for ancient tombs in Egypt. Hardy jumps at the chance to get out of the library and into the field, but soon finds himself dealing with things no one could have forseen. After tragedy befalls his expedition, Hardy is charged with bringing the mummies he recovered (six in all, though one sarcophagus is twice as big as any normal human) back to LA. When his train is waylaid in the Arizona desert, he learns that his cargo may be more dangerous than he ever suspected, and that cursed mummies are only the tip of the iceberg.

This was a fun, entertaining, and wild ride. Told in the style of old weird fiction stories, Sidor brings quite a bit of HP Lovecraft and The Mummy to the table. The latter half of the book, which takes place in Arizona and Mexico is evocative of Weird West stories. There are monsters and mummies and cultists and vampires. There are cowboys and banditos and Pinkertons and train heists. There’s cannibalism and curses and ancient legends. This book is a mashup of everything that makes weird fiction fun.

In fact, my biggest complaint is that in including everything, the story loses focus in places and drifts along, detached. Sometimes the actions runs along at breakneck pace, and sometimes it stutters to a halt to gaze for a while at the supernatural scenery.

Still, anyone who is looking for a good time with some good, old-fashioned pulp will probably enjoy this book. I mean, just look at that epic cover art! If the cover sings to you, then more than likely the book will as well.

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

Book Review: Welcome to Romero Park by Amber Michelle Cook

Welcome to Romero Park by Amber Michelle Cook

Romero Park is the ancestral home of Edward Dorchester, your classic haughty-yet-troubled gothic noble. It is harvest time, and Dorchester is planning a ball to celebrate the announcement of his engagement. But as the local gentry descend upon the manor, and the servants scramble to get everything in order, a fell moon rises on the proceedings, and a mysterious corruption is slowly working its insidious way through the manor house and grounds.

I wasn’t sure what I was in for when I started this book. Let’s face it, the zombie thing is on the decline, and classic-literature-plus-undead is hard to do right. Fortunately, Cook does a fantastic job with Romero Park, giving us both zombie mayhem and Victorian correctness in one package. The book uses the bones of Jane Eyre, and drapes it in rotting flesh and gnashing teeth. The story moves from person to person, flirting with the Brönte plot we know and love, but veering away into wholly original (and very entertaining) territory.

My original beef with the book is that it was largely build-up with little climax. Now that I know the book is the first in a planned trilogy, I can understand the reasons for the pacing. Cook slowly builds up the terror in store, letting us see glimpses of a future calamity, and setting us upon several red herrings. It also lets me appreciate the time the author takes with each of her characters, letting them live and breathe a bit before the undead come knocking.
This book, quite simply, is an enormous amount of fun. You know how the story is supposed to go, and you happily anticipate the chaos of the zombie apocalypse to come. And let’s face it, who hasn’t wanted some version of Blanche Ingram to get eaten by a horde of mindless undead?

If you enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (and I will confess that I enjoyed this book more), or like a whiff of rotting flesh with your classic literature, this is an incredibly entertaining read. I’m waiting on tenterhooks to see how the story plays out in the next book!

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

Book Review: The Darkling Bride by Laura Andersen

The Darkling Bride by Laura Andersen

Nestled within the wild mountains of Wicklow, Ireland lies Deeprath Castle, ancestral home to the Gallagher family for centuries. The brooding, ancient keep holds many secrets, and has seen many deaths. When Carragh Ryan is hired by the family’s stern matriarch, Lady Nessa, to catalogue the castle library before the current Viscount donates the property to the National Trust, she finds herself drawn into mysteries both modern an ancient. Ghostly legends and shadowy menace stalk the halls of Deeprath Castle, and death isn’t far behind.

This was an entertaining modern gothic mystery, complete with everything your heart could desire. Andersen gives us an ancient, brooding pile of a castle, complete with a young, handsome (and brooding, obviously) viscount. We have a ghostly “Darkling Bride” said to haunt the castle and grounds, and mysterious deaths from the 1890s and 1990s. Objectively satisfying is the fact that our heroine, Carragh, is no wilting violet, but a smart, bold woman, and certainly up for the challenge of unravelling the Deeprath mystery.

The narrative is split into three parts, following Carragh in the modern day, Lily Gallagher (murdered mother of the current viscount) in the 1990s, and Evan Chase, a writer who marries the troubled Jenny Gallagher in the 1890s. The split narrative can be fraught with peril, but Andersen does well with it, slowly revealing bits and pieces of the central mystery.

If you’re looking for a gothic mystery with modern-day trappings, this is an excellent choice. Fans of historical mysteries, ghost stories, and anything Irish will find a lot to like in this book.

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

Book Review: The Cadaver King by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

In the early 1990s, two young girls were taken from their Mississippi homes, raped, and murdered. Two men, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, were separately arrested, tried, and convicted for the crimes (Levon Brooks for the rape and murder of Courtney Smith in 1990, and Brewer for the rape and murder of Christine Jackson in 1992). Their convictions were won largely on the back of forensic testimony from coroner Dr. Stephen Hayne and self-styled bitemark expert Dr. Michael West. The problem? Both men were using extremely flawed (and some would say fraudulent) methods in their analyses. Michael West’s reputation as a huckster is so bad that he was featured in John Oliver’s exposé on the flaws of forensic testimony. Rather than striving for truth and justice, both doctors gained a reputation for helping to put away the person the police decided was guilty, no matter the flimsiness of the case.

Both men were eventually exonerated, but not before they had spent a combined 30 years in prison. Cadaver King (the authors are associated with The Innocence Project, which was instrumental in freeing Brooks and Brewer) examines the highly flawed coroner system in Mississippi, the faith placed by judges and juries on forensic methods which have not been scientifically evaluated, and a justice system which is reluctant to address and rectify its mistakes, even at the cost of keeping innocent men imprisoned.

This book examines the historical and racial roots that formed the justice system in Mississippi into what it would become. The book runs through the Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras–when the coroner system was used to enable and hide racial violence–to the turn of the twenty-first century, when lack of training, funding, and oversight allowed old habits to merge with modern science.

This book is horrifying and thought provoking. Faith in our justice system is one of tenets of our society. We should strive for the ideal that ojustice in this cointry rises above petty prejudices, that it demands accountability and accuracy from expert witnesses. That any person walking into a courtroom will leave with the verdict they deserve. While I’m certainly not naive enough to think that our system is infallible, seeing just how far we are from that heady ideal is devastating. This book serves as a reminder that the system is a creature of habit, and change will come more quickly if we begin to sit up and take notice.

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

Book Review: The Man Upon the Stair by Gary Inbinder

The Man Upon the Stair by Gary Inbinder

This is the third book in Inbinder’s Inspector Lefebvre series. There’s probably going to be spoilers for the first two books here. The good news is that while it is definitely better to read the books as a series, you could probably read this book as a standalone without too much trouble.


Achille Lefebvre has just been promoted to Chief Inspector following his successful foiling of an anarchist plot to assassinate a high ranking foreign offical with a new type of bomb. When the bomber meets his fate at the guillotine, Lefebvre is told that his compatriots have targeted him for revenge. In the midst of this, a high ranking member of the aristocracy, Baron de Livet has gone missing. Trying to uncover the Baron’s fate, Lefebvre uncovers easy connections between his missing person and the Russian government. As the conspiracy grows deeper, Lefebvre must use all his considerable intelligence and skills to safeguard himself and his family, and to prevent an international incident.

I received all three Inspector Lefebvre books as a bundle, and powered through the series in a matter of days. These books are entertaining historical mysteries, featuring an intelligent, forward-looking detective, intelligent women (good and evil), fascinating historical detail, and cameos by famous (real) historical figures. Inbinder provides us with enticing mysteries, and a cast of characters to root for and against. I loved how carefully Inbinder used historical details to firmly plant his stories in realistic ground.

The Man Upon the Stair combines historical mystery with political thriller. International intrigue and good old fashioned murder combine to set teetering a nation (and continent) already on the brink of war. The story is richly detailed and beautifully woven. Inbinder is clearly passionate about his subject and that enthusiasm shows through in his stories.

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

Book Review: A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

This is the third book in the Veronica Speedwell series. Naturally there will be spoilers for the first two books in the review below. Don’t forget to check out my reviews of A Curious Beginning and A Perilous Undertaking.

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After the adventures of the past two books, Veronica and Stoker have eased in to a unique sort of friendship. Kept busy cataloguing the vast (and strange) collections of the Earl of Rosemorran, who hopes to turn his family’s collection of oddities into a museum. When a cursed Egyptian expedition, complete with mysterious deaths and disappearances, makes the tabloids, irrepressible Veronica can’t resist getting involved, especially once it becomes clear that Stoker has a dark past with one of the curse’s victims. With scandal threatening to undo her friend, Veronica wades into the breach, determined to prove Stoker’s innocence.

Deana Rayboun continues her comedic-romantic-Victorian-mystery series in fine form. She provides plenty of ribald humor, sexual tension, and a juicy mystery. By this point in the series, we are well beyond the awkward introduction portion, and can simply sit back and enjoy watching the characters bounce off one another. In A Treacherous Curse, we get to see the relationship between Veronica and Stoker deepen and mature (possibly the wrong word choice here) as Stoker’s past comes back to threaten him in the present. Though I’ll confess that it took me a bit to warm up to her, Raybourn has quite a fun, strong character in Veronica Speedwell. Here is a woman who knows what she wants and society be damned. 

Fans of the first two books will enjoy this continuation of the series. Anyone looking for an atypical Victorian mystery series should add this to their TBR.

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