Book Review: In the house in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

The Blurb:

“Once upon a time there was and there wasn’t a woman who went to the woods.”

In this horror story set in colonial New England, a law-abiding Puritan woman goes missing. Or perhaps she has fled or abandoned her family. Or perhaps she’s been kidnapped, and set loose to wander in the dense woods of the north. Alone and possibly lost, she meets another woman in the forest. Then everything changes.

On a journey that will take her through dark woods full of almost-human wolves, through a deep well wet with the screams of men, and on a living ship made of human bones, our heroine may find that the evil she flees has been inside her all along. The eerie, disturbing story of one of our perennial fascinations–witchcraft in colonial America–In the House in the Dark of the Woods is a novel of psychological horror and suspense told in Laird Hunt’s characteristically lyrical prose style. It is the story of a bewitching, a betrayal, a master huntress and her quarry. It is a story of anger, of evil, of hatred and of redemption. It is the story of a haunting, a story that makes up the bedrock of American mythology, but told in a vivid way you will never forget.

This book read like a combination of fevered nightmare and fairytale. And I mean that in the best way possible. The story takes our heroine (?), known only as “Goody” and sets her down in a wood where magic weaves into the bark of the trees, and the stench of rot can be sensed when the wind blows the right way.

Like a traditional fairy tale, the story begins by showing us the fantastical…the sharp teeth are well hidden. But as the story goes on, the underlying menace comes to the fore, and the smile widens into a razor grin.

This isn’t your traditional horror story … but the dream-like prose and ever-fascinating subject matter make this book shine. Anyone out there looking for something a bit different for the Halloween season and the dying of the year should consider this book.

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: 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: 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: The House on Foster Hill by Jaime Jo Wright

The House on Foster Hill by Jaime Jo Wright

Kaine Prescott has traveled to the ends of the earth (also known as rural Wisconsin) to try to put the suspicious death of her husband behind her. Unable to convince anyone–including the police–that his death was anything other than a tragic accident, Kaine throws her energy into rehabbing the ancient and rundown Foster Hill house, long abandoned and rumored to be haunted. Meanwhile, in 1906, a young woman named Ivy finds the body of a young woman hidden in the hollow tree at Foster Hill. Obsessed with uncovering the girl’s identity, Ivy finds herself in greater and greater danger the more she learns.

This book sounded like such fun. I don’t mind a dual narrative when done well, and I settled myself in for an entertaining haunted house read. Unfortunately, the book fiys more closely into the Christian romance category than anything resembling horror or suspense. I enjoyed the historical half of the narrative for the most part, but I found modern-day Kaine hard to like or care about (aside from her dog).

In the end, this book just wasn’t for me. I’m not a fan of romance most of the time, and I just … don’t really enjoy majorly religious protagonists. I wish the book had billed itself less along haunted house lines and had a blurb that more closely described the plot.

A 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: The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane by Colin Falconer

The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane by Colin Falconer

At the turn of the twentieth century, Kitty O’Kane grows up poor in the slums of Dublin, Ireland, enduring beatings from her drunken father and dreaming of a better life. She gets herself out of her old life and into service with the prestigious White Star line. She is able to secure a position as a stewardess on the line’s newest and largest ship: the Titanic. And so starts the saga of the Unkillable Kitty O’Kane. After becoming romantically involved with a firebrand journalist, Kitty dives into the fight for the poor, the disenfranchised, and for women’s sufferage. She bears witness to the some of the most calamitous and tumultuos events of the early twentieth century. Through Kitty’s eyes we experience the sinking of the Lusitania, the Russian Revolution, and the start of The Troubles in Ireland.

Kitty spends much of the book lamending her past. She ties herself early on to the increasingly erratic reporter, and pines for Tom Doyle, a young boy from her childhood in Dublin who has since grown into a handsome young doctor in London. And this is the crux of the problem for the book. Romance and love triangles are all well and good, but Kitty’s relationship with the men in her life completely takes over any true agency she might have had.

Yes, she witnesses the October Revolution in Russia, but she is only there because the journalist, Lincoln, has dragged her there. She wants to be a journalist herself, but lacks the courage to write in her own words, and rather follows Lincoln’s lead in all her writing. She eschews becoming a wife and mother in favor of adventure and activist (a decision I applaud) yet will not picture a life with her “true love” Tom Doyle that does not adhere to traditional relationships. She may be The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane, survivor of two shipwrecks, Russian snipers, and British armaments, but she is only that by accident, or by someone else’s agency. She is on a quest to better the lives of women in the world, but the author doesn’t let her make an attempt except by the side of a man.

So, the historical aspects of this book were lovely, and Kitty’s insertion into actual historical events, and her meeting with real historical people is well done. But I found Kitty’s lack of agency, and her dependence on an increasingly erratic Lincoln to be frustrating, and runs counter to the plot of a book that emphasized the personal strength and growth of a woman born with nothing who makes something of herself.

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

Book Review: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

vengeance road

 Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

Kate Thompson returns home in time to find her father dead, hanging from a mesquite tree, and the family homestead burned to the ground. The celebratory yells of the gunman who killed him still echoing off the dry Arizona land. Swearing vengeance, and vowing to recover her father’s stolen journal, Kate sets off after the gang with rifle in hand. As her questions for revenge becomes entangled with a legendary gold mine, revelations about Kate’s family force her to question everything she has known.

Usually when you hear a book described as “gritty”, you think of a detective novel with a high functioning alcoholic detective and a female lead who resembles a poisonous spider. However, when I say that Vengeance Road is gritty, I mean it in the most literal sense. Bowman paints the thinnest coat of romanticism over her descriptions of life on the frontier. For the most part, she invites us to look closely at the dirt, the stench, the whores, the casual violence, the racism, and the cheapness of life past the edge of “civilization.” I love it. 

Her descriptions of the desert, the mountains, and the canyons on Kate’s journey are clearly written by someone in love with the harsh beauty of the American Southwest. Bowman also weaves local legends into her story, rooting it even more firmly into the red Arizona soil.

So yes, this is a YA book, but I found it very enjoyable for even those beyond the YA years (except for bits of the obligatory will they/won’t they love story, sigh . . . Though Bowman does handle that as darkly as the rest of the story). Finding a good western is hard these days, the genre has gone out of fashion of late. For YA lovers, this is a great way to introduce yourself to a new (old) genre.

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