Book Review: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Sancia exists in the small spaces within the Tevanni Empire. While the great merchant houses keep their own states-within-a-state behind magical walls, Sancia scrambles to live as a thief in the lawless ghettos that exist outside the houses control. When Sancia is offered the chance of a lifetime; an unbelievable amount of money for a single job, she jumps at the chance to escape. Unfortunately, the item she steals is very dangerous, very valuable, and very coveted. Sancia soon finds herself fighting for her life as a highly-placed member of the merchant houses seeks to recover the stolen item and eliminate any who know of its existence.

Bennett has given us a world somewhere between a steampunk industrial revolution England and a medieval Italian city state. In this world, the powerful have cornered the market on magic, and industrialized it to suit their own ends. Those with the ability to create magical items and processes live in comfort within walled enclaves. Those who do not live a short, brutal existence in the slums just outside the wall. This story is a tale of haves and have-nots, and the extremes those in power will go to in order to keep that power close to hand.

Sancia is a fantastic heroine, flawed and broken, not doing things necessarily because they are right, but because circumstances have left her with little choice in the matter. She is a woman who has been victimized in the past, but staunchly refuses to play the victim any longer. Though she does not always win, she continues to strive forward because standing still or going back are simply unacceptable.

Make no mistake, this is a dark story, but hose who like their fantasy dark will enjoy this book. Same goes for anyone looking for a new heroine to root for.

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: 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.

Book Review: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

It’s hard to be a single mom in London, but Louise feels like she might have lucked out when she meets a handsome, interesting man on a night out at the bar. Then, come Monday, she discovers her new boss–her new, married boss is none other than the man from the bar. Vowing not to take it further than a drunken kiss at a bar, Louise’s life gets more complicated when she winds up befriending the man’s beautiful, fragile wife. But the married couple hides some dark secrets in their past, and the more Louise learns about the pair, the more questions arise. Something is clearly very wrong, and Louise seems to be in danger, but from whom?

This was a surprisingly haunting psychological thriller. The story doesn’t turn the (rather tired) genre on its head, but rearranges the pieces a bit, adds some original new elements, and delivers a story with twists and turns and (I’m delighted to say) an unexpected ending. I’ve railed before about the saturation of psychological thrillers right now, and for the most part I’ve become just so jaded about the whole genre. It’s wonderful to know that there are author’s out there with the skill to make thrillers fun again.

So if you’re looking for something fresh in the thriller department, and an unpredictable, grab-you-by-the-back-of-the-neck plot, this is the book for you.

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: A Lady in Shadows by Lene Kaaberbøl

A Lady in Shadows by Lene Kaaberbøl

This is the second book in the Madeleine Karno series, so there will likely be spoilers in this review for the first book in the series. Or, if you’re like me and didn’t read the first book, Lady in Shadows is enjoyable as a standalone.


In 1894, the president of France was assassinated. In the wake of the riots and unrest that followed, the body of a young woman was discovered on the streets of Varbroug brutally mutilated in a fashion reminiscent of the Jack the Ripper murders which plagues London only a few years before. Madeleine Karno is struggling to continue her work as a female pathologist in a very male world. She has been accepted as the first female student at the University of Varbroug, but as a physiologist, not a medical student. With the brutal murder causing greater and greater amounts of sensation in the press and panic in the populace, Madeleine finds the investigation focused more on the victim’s status as a prostitute rather than who may have killed her. Determined to see justice done, Madeleine finds herself traveling farther and farther into the city’s dark secrets, and closer to a brutal killer.

This was a great historical mystery. The tone is dark where most entries in this genre tend towards the cozy. Madeleine Karno makes for a great protagonist. She is smart and driven, but not Wonder Woman. She makes mistakes, she falls into self doubt, and her struggles to reconcile her ambitions with her femininity seem very real and very relatable. This is no dilettante society dame dabbling in murder, or the ice queen career harpy we see so often. Rather, Karno knows she has brains and wants to use them, but is also trying to figure out how to balance her engagement to a German professor, the demands of running a household and (shudder) the possibility of children with realizing her goals of becoming a pathologist in her own right. This is a struggle that nearly every employed wo,an will recognize.

Those who enjoy period mysteries, especially featuring a strong and relatable female lead, should check this series out.

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

Book Review: The Plastic Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

The Plastic Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

This is Holmberg’s fourth entry into her Paper Magician universe. This is not a direct sequel, rather The Plastic Magician explores new themes and magics within the same universe as the Paper Magician Trilogy. This means you can read this book as a standalone without having read the others. But I’m going to say right now that if you haven’t read the original trilogy, then you are seriously missing out.

In this story, we leave magicians Ceony Twill and Emery Thane behind and instead follow Alvie Brechenmacher, an American girl with German parents who desperately wants to be a polymaker, that is- a magician who works with plastic. As polymaking is the newest and least understood magic, there is an entire world waiting for discovery, and Alvie, naturally brilliant and creative, wants to make her mark on the world. When she manages to apprentice to the world’s foremost polymaker, all of Alvie’s dreams seem to be coming true. But when she and her mentor develop a groundbreaking new invention, old rivalries emerge and Alvie learns that the world of magician can be a dangerous one.

This was a great addition to the Paper Magician world. Alvie is a fantastic protagonist–unapologetically brilliant, kind, creative, and more than a little socially awkward. I also enjoyed how, despite the book’s historical setting, everyone seems to take Alvie’s intellect as a given, and as an asset. Alvie occupies the brilliant inventor trope that is so often the territory of male characters, and she does it well. I always love a female protagonist who is comfortable with their own intelligence.

In fact, my biggest complaint would be that the antagonist of this book, while amoral and devious, exists more as a witless foil than a true challenge. While he certainly succeeds in disrupting things in the book (as he must), once his master plan was revealed, I felt a bit let down (really guy, that was your plan? And then what?!).

In all, this is a fun YA book that will appeal to a wide age range. Fans of the previous books will enjoy this one, and anyone who thinks this book looks good should check out the Paper Magician, like, yesterday.

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

Book Review: The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

Fair warning: this is the second book in Caruso’s Swords and Fire Series. If you haven’t read The Tethered Mage, then there’s probably going to be spoilers in here for the first book. Of course, if you haven’t read Tethered Mage, then you’re missing out on a fantastic fantasy series and should go read it right now. I’ll wait.


Amalia Cornaro’s political star is on the rise. After averting disaster and civil war within the Raverran Empire, she has, however reluctantly, accepted her place as her mother’s heir. But the Witch Lords of Vaskandar, led by the sadistic skinwitch Ruven, are preparing for war with the Empire. These incredibly powerful mages, each more or less invincible in their own realms, could spell the end of Raverra itself. Amalia and her fire warlock falcon, Zaira, once again find themselves the first line of defense for their homeland.

The Tethered Mage was one of my favorite debut fantasy novels. Caruso created a world (based loosely on renaissance Venice) that was full of magic and people, a world that was vibrant, that had a feel of reality and history to it. In Defiant Heir, Caruso build on this strong foundation, and allows the world and her characters to grow.

This story takes us out of the now-familiar Raverra and into Vaskandar, of which we hear only vague rumors before. I enjoyed how the focus on the Witch Lords allowed for the magic system of the world to grow and evolve alongside the characters.

This book is ostensibly in the young adult genre, but is engaging and intelligent enough to appeal to a wide range of readers. Anyone looking for a fantastic fantasy series featuring a smart, resourceful, and relatable female lead need look no further.

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

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

It started with strange news reports out of Russia, stories of people seeing … something and going mad, performing grotesque acts of violence on themselves and others. Then the incidents are reported in Alaska, whatever it is seems to be moving slowly westward, and no one seems to know what it is. Five years later, and the world may as well be empty. Malorie has been living in isolation with her two young children. The only rule: don’t look outside. The children have never been outside their sealed-off house without blindfolds. But now, they have to leave, and their best chance for safe refuge lies twenty miles away, down the river. Calorie will have to row the distance blindfolded, with another but her and her children’s senses to guide her. But as they set out, it soon becomes clear that something is stalking them.

This was my first read of 2018, and my god, it scared the crap out of me! The book is told entirely from Malorie’s point of view, and since she cannot look at what is happening without going mad, neither can we. Malerman forces the reader to go through the book blinded, relying on the information Malorie is able to glean using her other senses. The tension in this book is thick enough to cut with a knife. Even in story form, the lack of visual data is terrifying.

The story moves back and forth between when the incidents are just beginning, and five years later when Malorie is making her journey downriver towards (what she hopes is) safety. Malerman let’s the tension build slowly, and keeps the reader in a state of near panic for most of the book. I read Bird Box in one sitting because I literally could not stop reading. Malerman is clearly a master of the horror genre, I can’t wait to read his other books.