Double!! Book Review: Whispers Beyond the Veil and Whispers of Warning by Jessica Estevao

Whispers Beyond the Veil and Whispers of Warning by Jessica Estevao

So it’s time for a big ol’ review of the first two books in Jessica Estevao’s Change of Fortune mystery series. Since I’m reviewing both books together, there’s probably going to be minor spoilers for the second book in the series (duh).

Blurb the first:

Canada, 1898. The only life Ruby Proulx has ever known is that of a nomad, traveling across the country with her snake-oil salesman father. She dreams of taking root somewhere, someday, but, until she can, she makes her way by reading tarot cards. Yet she never imagined her own life would take such a turn…

After one of her father’s medical “miracles” goes deadly wrong, Ruby evades authorities by hiding in the seaside resort town of Old Orchard, Maine, where her estranged Aunt Honoria owns the Hotel Belden, a unique residence that caters to Spiritualists—a place where Ruby should be safe as long as she can keep her dark secret hidden.

But Ruby’s plan begins to crumble after a psychic investigator checks into the hotel and senses Ruby is hiding more than she’s letting on. Now Ruby must do what she can to escape both his attention and Aunt Honoria’s insistence that she has a true gift, before she loses her precious new home and family forever…

Blurb the second (spoilers, duh):

Partially reformed con artist Ruby Proulx is starting to feel at home in her aunt’s seaside hotel. She loves the feeling of being rooted in one place and also feels a sense of purpose as she helps her aunt keep her business afloat by acting as a psychic medium for the hotel’s metaphysically inclined guests.

When one of the guests, renowned Spiritualist and outspoken suffragist Sophronia Foster Eldridge, checks into the hotel for a month-long stay, Ruby finds her sense of purpose expand outside the confines of home and family. Sophronia takes Ruby under her wing and mentors her in the mediumistic abilities, encouraging her to work for a woman’s right to vote. But not everyone is as happy with Sophronia’s appearance in Old Orchard. When her body is found floating in the saltwater plunge pool of a local bathhouse, Ruby takes it upon herself to solve the murder, and in the process learns that Sophronia was hiding some secrets of her own.

Estevao has done a great job recreating a seaside town in Maine at the turn of the 20th century. She has clearly done a great deal of research, and the town of Old Orchard comes alive off the page. Ruby herself is a great character, an intelligent, independent woman who still manages to make mistakes, and occasionally do the wrong thing. In other words, Ruby has welcome nuance to her character. She isn’t a victim, a villain, or a superhero, but rather is someone relatable and sympathetic.

The mystery plots are well crafted, with red herrings and rich supporting characters. There is (isn’t there always?) a romance subplot, but it remains largely in the background, and doesn’t consume the characters.

In all, this is a great historical mystery series, with plenty of room to grow and evolve. Fans of the genre will have no trouble diving into this engaging book. Fans of Victoria Thompson and Deanna Rayborn should definitely take note.

An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

The Blurb:

An Unexplained Death is an obsessive investigation into a mysterious death at the Belvedere—a once-grand hotel—and a poignant, gripping meditation on suicide and voyeurism

“The poster is new. I notice it right away, taped to a utility pole. Beneath the word ‘Missing,’ printed in a bold, high-impact font, are two sepia-toned photographs of a man dressed in a bow tie and tux.”

Most people would keep walking. Maybe they’d pay a bit closer attention to the local news that evening. Mikita Brottman spent ten years sifting through the details of the missing man’s life and disappearance, and his purported suicide by jumping from the roof of her own apartment building, the Belvedere.

As Brottman delves into the murky circumstances surrounding Rey Rivera’s death—which begins to look more and more like a murder—she contemplates the nature of and motives behind suicide, and uncovers a haunting pattern of guests at the Belvedere, when it was still a historic hotel, taking their own lives on the premises. Finally, she fearlessly takes us to the edge of her own morbid curiosity and asks us to consider our own darker impulses and obsessions.

This book was not what I expected. That isn’t a bad thing at all. I had done in expecting scandal and intrigue, and found introspection and analysis (which probably says a lot about me). An Unexplained Death reminds me strongly of Claudia Rowe’s The Spider and the Fly, which was a true-crime book that focused more on the impact of the crime and the killer on the author’s life.

The book deals with the mysterious death of Rey Rivera, who plunged from the roof of the Belvedere in Baltimore in 2006. Brottman, who lived (still lives) in the building, found herself intrigued, then obsessed by the circumstances of Rivera’s death. Add that to the history of the Belvedere itself, which seems to attract suicidal people, and there is a lot to dig into here.

Yet, the book is less about Rivera than about the author’s, and our own, fascination with death and self-destruction. Brottman speaks multiple times of her (unconscious and semi-unwanted) ability to be completely forgettable. She walks through her own story as some sort of ghost, peripheral and ephemeral to those around her. Whether the feeling of invisibleness contributes to her fascination with death and suicide isn’t stated.

Though the tone of the book was unexpected, I found myself swiftly drawn into Brottman’s tale. At times a stark history, at others almost a stream-of-concious musing, I admire Brottman’s ability to look into her dark fascinations and wring a moving story from them. After all, it is part of the human condition to want to gaze into that abyss. Few of us, however, are willing to admit how much we enjoy its pull.

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

Book Review: A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Ann Fowler

A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Ann Fowler

The Blurb:

The riveting novel of iron-willed Alva Vanderbilt and her illustrious family in as they rule Gilded-Age New York, from the New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.

In 1883, the New York Times prints a lengthy rave of Alva Vanderbilt’s Fifth Ave. costume ball–a coup for the former Alva Smith, who not long before was destitute, her family’s good name useless on its own. Marrying into the newly rich but socially scorned Vanderbilt clan, a union contrived by Alva’s bestfriend and now-Duchess of Manchester, saved the Smiths–and elevated the Vanderbilts.

From outside, Alva seems to have it all and want more. She does have a knack for getting all she tries for: the costume ball–no mere amusement–wrests acceptance from doyenne Caroline Astor. Denied abox at the Academy of Music, Alva founds The Met. No obstacle puts her off for long.

But how much of ambition arises from insecurity? From despair? From refusal to play insipid games by absurd rules? –There are, however, consequences to breaking those rules. One must tread carefully.

And what of her maddening sister-in-law, Alice? Her husband William, who’s hiding a terrible betrayal? The not-entirely-unwelcome attentions of his friend Oliver Belmont, who is everything William is not? What of her own best friend, whose troubles cast a wide net?

Alva will build mansions, push boundaries, test friendships, and marry her daughter to England’s most eligible duke or die trying. She means to do right by all, but good behavior will only get a woman so far. What is the price of going further? What might be the rewards? There’s only one way to know for certain…

In her afterword, Therese Anne Fowler makes a wonderful point: that powerful/influential women, especially those who live “unconventional” lives, tend to be remembered negatively. Alva Vanderbilt is commonly remembered as a gold-digging, social-ladder-climbing floozy. Yet (as is almost always the case) there is more to her than that. The image we have of Alva is passed along largely through the memories of men and society matrons she offended. Little about her life has been put into context.

Fowler’s book seeks to put Alva’s life in a more contextual (and sympathetic) frame. Here we see Alva not as a mere social climber, but also as a woman with limited options in 19th century society to ensure the wellbeing of herself and her family. She is not a shrill hysteric, but an intelligent woman with little outlet for her talents.

I love seeing history from the other direction. While you can certainly argue that Alva, as the wife of one of the richest men in the world at the time, was by no means living in hardship, it is shocking just how restricted the lives of society women were around the turn of the 20h century.

Fans of history and historical fiction will certainly find Fowler’s story engaging.

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

Book Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

Welcome to the late 19th century in an America that never was. The federal government, seeking to relieve the nation’s meat shortages, had the brilliant idea of importing hippos and breeding them in the swamps of the southeast. This is, apparently, based on an actual proposal that was (thankfully) scrapped. However, in River of Teeth, the plan went ahead, and now most of northern Louisiana is a swamp full of vicious feral hippos (and more than a few outlaws and gangsters). Winslow Houndstooth is a man with a past, looking for one last payout to retire and live out the good life. He has been tasked (alongside his crew) with clearing the swamp of ferals. Of course, in a story like this, nothing can ever go as planned.

The first thing that grabbed my attention was the title. I mean, River of Teeth? How could I pass up anything with a title like that?! Add to that a recent “oh hey, did you hear about…” from Dear Husband about (I shit you not) feral hippos wrecking up the place in Mexico. It just seemed like it was meant to be.

The book is an old-fashioned western with a hell of a novel twist. Gailey gives us murder revenge, paddle boats, hippo ranchers, gamblers, lawmen, mercenaries, gun fights, knife fights, and explosives. In short, all the things you want in your old-timey western adventure and then some. Also novel about Gailey’s story is the diversity of the characters. Let’s face it, the western (pick any genre though) with wall-to-wall white male protagonists has been done (and done, and done). Gailey brings a refreshingly varied cast of characters to her story.

In fact, my biggest complaint about this story is how short it is. At 114 pages, this is more novella than novel. I read the book in a single sitting and simply wanted more. I wanted more time and interactions with Houndstooth and his crew, I wanted more history and background of the hippo endeavor and the mess that brought about a huge swamp of death. Fortunately, there’s a second book out (and hopefully more to follow) so I will get my wish.

Book Review: The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas

The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas

Spoiler: This is the 3rd book in Sherry Thomas’ fantastic Lady Sherlock Series, and so this review may contain minor spoilers for the first two books. So go read them. Now.


The Blurb:

Under the cover of “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes puts her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. Aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, Charlotte draws those in need to her and makes it her business to know what other people don’t.

Moriarty’s shadow looms large. First, Charlotte’s half brother disappears. Then, Lady Ingram, the estranged wife of Charlotte’s close friend Lord Ingram, turns up dead on his estate. And all signs point to Lord Ingram as the murderer.

With Scotland Yard closing in, Charlotte goes under disguise to seek out the truth. But uncovering the truth could mean getting too close to Lord Ingram—and a number of malevolent forces…

I’m a huge fan of Sherry Thomas’ take on Sherlock Holmes. She has managed to make something shiny and new from (let’s face it) tragically overused material. I’m quite taken with Charlotte Holmes; she is cool and calculating as Conan Doyle’s original consulting detective, yet wholly (Some might say unnervingly) feminine. Thomas has not presented us with a Deerstalker cap with lace trimmings, but a fully fleshed character, one who can stand on her own daintily-clad feet.

The third entry into the series continues to flesh out the characters of Charlotte and those that surround her. Fans of the will-they-won’t-they dynamic will enjoy the focus on Lord Ingram in the central plot. And, as always, Thomas provides us with a complex and layered plot, full of well-executed twists and turns.

Fans of historical mysteries and of Sherlock Holmes will find a lot to enjoy in this original and entertaining series. If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, it’s past time to get caught up.

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

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.