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: The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal

The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal

The Blurb:

It’s late. The phone rings.

The man on the other end says his daughter is missing.

Your daughter.

The baby you gave away over fifteen years ago.

What do you do?

Nora Watts isn’t sure that she wants to get involved. Troubled, messed up, and with more than enough problems of her own, Nora doesn’t want to revisit the past. But then she sees the photograph. A girl, a teenager, with her eyes. How can she turn her back on her?

But going in search of her daughter brings Nora into contact with a past that she would rather forget, a past that she has worked hard to put behind her, but which is always there, waiting for her . . .

I love flawed female protagonists. I mean, I love female protagonists in general, but commonly they are depicted as wonder women or saints, physically, mentally, and/or emotionally perfect. Of course, psychological thrillers have taken the unstable female trope as an easy out to create an “edgy” story (see many previous rants of mine). It is rare, though, that we find a flawed, damaged, occasionally unlikable woman steadfastly occupying the role of heroine, and I absolutely love it.

Nora Watts was brought up in the foster system after her father’s suicide. She survived a brutal rape as a young woman, she is a recovering alcoholic, formerly homeless, and holding her life together by her fingernails. The knowledge that the daughter she had given up for adoption a decade and a half ago threatens to undermine what little stability she has managed to create for herself. Nora is suspicious, paranoid, and unstable. She can be vicious and unforgiving. She has a pitch-black, deadpan sense of humor. And I absolutely love her as a character.

The story itself is a dark, contemporary mystery, reminiscent of Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Nora’s past informs the reader’s present, and the grim paranoia of the story seeps into every interaction. This is ultimately a story of haves and have-nots. Nora is half-native, formerly indigent, skating along the bleeding edge of poverty. As she delves deeper into her daughter’s disappearance, the breadth of the forces arrayed against her becomes more and more clear. A David and Goliath tale for the modern age, wrapped in the darkest noir, this is a fantastic start to a new mystery series, with a protagonist who may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but is nonetheless unforgettable and original.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher 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: Jane Seymour The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

Jane Seymour the Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

This is the third book in Alison Weir’s historical fiction series about the six wives of Henry VIII. I’d say there’s spoilers in this review, but can such a well known historical drama really be spoiled at this point?

This story centers around Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife and [SPOILER ALERT]

His only wife to bear him a son.

[END SPOILER ALERT]

Jane was born to lesser nobility, began her career at court as a lady’s maid to Queen Katherine (Henry’s first wife) and later Anne Boleyn after the doomed lady ascended to the throne. It was in this capacity that she caught the eye of an increasingly frustrated Henry VIII.

Alison Weir is rightly lauded for her work in both fiction and nonfictional historical works. While this particular book is a fictionalization of Jane Seymour’s life, Weir hews closely to known historical fact for much of the book. Where she deviates or invents, a very helpful and informative afterward explains her choices of plot and interpretation.

Fans of historical fiction will greatly enjoy this book, which will also appeal to romance readers. The tragedies of Henry VIII’s wives are a fascinating subject, and Weir treats them as such.

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

Book Review: The Exes’ Revenge by Jo Jakeman

The Exes’ Revenge by Jo Jakeman

The Blurb:

A wickedly dark debut thriller about three women who’ve all been involved with the same man and realize the one thing they have in common is that they all want revenge against him…

Divorces are often messy, and Imogen’s is no exception. Phillip Rochester is controlling, abusive, and determined to make things as difficult as possible. When he shows up without warning demanding that Imogen move out of their house by the end of the month or he’ll sue for sole custody of their young son, Imogen is ready to snap.

In a moment of madness, Imogen does something unthinkable–something that puts her in control for the first time in years. She’s desperate to protect her son and to claim authority over her own life.

But she wasn’t expecting both Phillip’s ex-wife and new girlfriend to get tangled up in her plans. These three very different women–and unlikely allies–reluctantly team up to take revenge against a man who has wronged them all.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book as much as I did. About a quarter of the way in, I was ready to give up, chalk it up to another psychological thriller looking to hit the same buttons as countless other ones before. Then, the plot takes a hard left-hand turn and I found myself no longer in the gray muck of psychological thrillerville, but in the sparkly, colorful, oversaturated world of a pulp revenge story.

After a manner of speaking. The Exes’ Revenge lacks the gratuitous violence of the best pulp, but it is nonetheless a fast-paced story of revenge and unexpected consequences. The story follows the strengths and weaknesses of three very different women. They all have the same problem, but all have different priorities and goals, and all will go about wreaking revenge in their own way. There is something supremely satisfying in seeing a justly deserved revenge story play out.

So psychological thriller lovers will find getting into this story easy as falling down the stairs. But even those who aren’t thrilled with the genre (ha) can enjoy this book. Revenge is sweet, after all.

A 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: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Hanna is nearly perfect, at least according to her daddy. So what if she still isn’t speaking at age seven? She’s clearly very intelligent, and more than capable of communicating in her own way. Those schools she’s been expelled from? They just didn’t understand her. Suzette, Hanna’s mother suspects something is wrong. Her precocious child is displaying worrying tendencies towards manipulation and violence. While her husband remains blind to Hanna’s problems, Suzette begins to suspect she may be the target of Hanna’s wrath.

Let me say at the start that my interpretation of the book may be a bit different from most. I am emphatically childfree, don’t really care for children in any case, and tend to regard most of them as tiny little psychopaths until they reach their midtwenties. Am I justified in this point of view? Probably not. But that’s the mindset I’m coming from when reading this book.

And it was nightmarish. The book is great, don’t get me wrong. It is tightly written, and the alternating points of view between Suzette and Hanna let us truly get to know the central characters. I had to take a break from the book about 100 pages in because it was keeping me up at night. The utter despair and hopelessness of Suzette’s situation is wrenching. She is trying (though imperfectly) to do right by her daughter, though years of abnormal and worrying behavior from Hanna have made her a bit ambivalent about motherhood. Compound this with her husband’s need to see only the perfect, upper-middle class family he desires, and Suzette is entirely alone to deal with her daughter. This I find terrifying: when dealing with mental and behavioral abnormalities in childhood, it is generally left to the mother to wonder where she went wrong, and what she could have done differently. And in all cases, motherhood is a condition with no escape. Someone may regret bringing a child into the world, but there are few socially acceptable ways to divorce oneself from parenthood, especially when being “a good mother” is considered the epitome of female (and especially middle class) success.

Well, enough ranting. I did, obviously, pick the book back up (and finished the remainder in one sitting). In the interests of keeping this review spoiler-free, I’m going to say little about the latter part of the book, but I will say that I was surprised by the direction the story took.

In sum, this book is a nuanced look at motherhood and psychopathy, at the loneliness of being a stay at home mother, and the frustration of being an atypical child. This book intimately describes the horror of finding out that, rather than the sweet, beautiful child you may have dreamed about, you have given birth to a monster, and are now tethered to its side.

I’d be curious to see what more maternally-minded people thought of his book? We’re their sympathies (like mine) fully with Suzette? Or do they see something redeeming in Hanna? Do they feel the horror as “that could have been me”? Or does the horror lie in “Suzette should have done x,y,z”? I would love to hear your thoughts, feel free to leave me a comment or two!

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