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 Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch

The Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch

The Blurb:

Seven years after a financial crisis nearly toppled America, traders chafe at government regulations, racial tensions are rising, and corrupt financiers make back-door deals with politicians… 1799 was a hell of a year.

Thanks to Alexander Hamilton, America recovered from the financial panic of 1792, but the young country is still finding its way. When a young lawyer returns to prove his father’s innocence, he exposes a massive financial fraud that the perpetrators are determined to keep secret at any cost. And reaching the highest levels, the looming crisis could topple the nation.

This is an incredibly well researched book. Hirsch has delved deeply into 18th century New York, and he brings all the details–the sights, smells, and people, to vivid life in this richly textured mystery story.

Unfortunately, while he has a vivid eye for detail, the pacing of the story seems unequal to Hirsch’s vision. Events string along one after the other, slowly moving the plot along, some even seeming to serve little purpose. For me, the slow-moving and meandering plot overshadowed the carefully crafted setting.

Hirsch is a journalist, and has a journalist’s eye for detail and truth. Fiction is a whole different animal, and talent with non-fiction subjects does not automatically translate to prowess with fictional ones. That being said, Hirsch is clearly a talented writer, and this story marks his first foray into writing fiction. Future endeavors may even out the pacing of his plots, and tighten up wandering storylines. If so, he will likely be a talent to watch.

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

Book Review: City of Ink by Elsa Hart

City of Ink by Elsa Hart

This is the third book in Elsa Hart’s Li Du series, so this review may have some spoilers for the first two books.


Li Du has returned to Beijing (however reluctantly) after earning his pardon. Making the most of the bustling and confining capital city, Li Du sets out to discover the truth behind his mentor’s crimes (and the cause of his exile). To that end, he takes up a post as a lowly clerk in an unimportant government office, so much the better to remain invisible in the city. When a double murder occurs in his district, it seems like a straightforward case of marital infidelity and jealousy. But as Li Du and his supervisor conduct their investigation, the seemingly simple case becomes more and more complex. Soon, Li Du finds his cherished anonymity in jeopardy and enemies at every turn.

I vastly enjoyed the previous book in this series, The White Mirror. Hart’s historical locations seem to live and breathe. She has clearly done an extensive amount of research for her stories, and her attention to detail and skill with words allow the reader to fully immerse themselves into 18th century China.

Like The White Mirror, this mystery is complex and subtle, with many threads weaving in and out of the main narrative. Hart builds the tension of her story slowly, allowing the reader to stop and reason along with the clever Li Du.

Fans of historical mysteries can do little better than this wonderful series.

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: Differently Morphous by Yahtzee Croshaw

Differently Morphous by Yahtzee Croshaw

For centuries, the Ministry of Occultism has worked in the shadows, keeping the world safe from otherworldly elder gods, “tainted” magic users, and monsters of all kinds. All this gets upended when a group of gelatinous refugees from another dimension garner a storm of media attention. Suddenly the Ministry of Occultism is thrown into the worst sort of attention. As awareness of shoggoths, er, fluidics suffuses the world consciousness, the Ministry finds itself on the wrong side of the political correctness debate. When a serial killer starts targeting fluidics, the agency’s top (read:only) field agents mget act quickly to save lives and prevent a PR Armageddon.

Croshaw is an author known for his irreverent, biting humor. His wit is on display here as he tackles the subject of political correctness in a bizarre, yet strangely relatable context. Before I get further, I am going to come down firmly on the side of political correctness. It takes little effort to take other people’s feelings and cultural history into consideration, and adjust your behavior accordingly. There’s nothing noble in adhering to the old days or old eays if that is just an excuse to be an uncaring asshat.

Now, as with any progressive movement, there is always pushback from people who feel uncomfortable with change, and who would rather not have to accept things they find disagreeable. Now, the line between acceptable and unacceptable in society is based on a lot of factors… not to long ago, being gay was officially considered a mental illness and criminal. The question recidivists often ask is where will acceptance end? When does it stop being acceptance of cultural or sexual differences and start becoming enabling of harmful behavior? The primary example pulled out for this is female genital mutilation, many cultures consider it a vital part of a girl’s development into a woman, but it has been recognized by many as harmful and cruel. What view takes precedence?

Croshaw heads into this thorny problem head on, and with his typical humorous twist. He, like South Park writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, chooses to highlight he ridiculousness of both positions, leaving the reader bouncing against different levels of right and wrong: how can anyone hate the fluidics? They seem so polite and helpful? Do demons really require equal rights? Etc. Some people deride this as riding the median, but I think that exposing the flaws in both viewpoints forces people to examine their own thoughts and feelings.

Wow. That review got a lot more serious than I intended. Let me sum up by saying that this is an intelligent and entertaining story of monsters, bureaucracy, and modern life. It will make you laugh out loud and think deep(ish) thoughts. In a world were (justifiably) the subject of political correctness is an unchanging wall of seriousness and resentment, it is refreshing to look at the lighter side.

The book is currently available as an Audible original, meaning it is an audio book read by Croshaw himself. This is a role he is well suited for, after his years fronting the animated videogame review blog, Zero Punctuation. Fans of Yahtzee Crowshaw’s previous books, or fans of Christopher Moore and/or A. Lee Martinez are sure to enjoy this book.

Book Review: Dead Men Whistling by Graham Masterson

Dead Men Whistling by Graham Masterson

This is the ninth book in the Katie Maguire series, so this review will probably contain some minor spoilers for the previous books in the series. However, I read this book without having read the others, and was able to enjoy it on its own merits.


Garda detective Katie Maguire is still reeling from her last brutal case; her dog, Barney, was nearly beaten to death, and the man responsible for his condition has managed to avoid prosecution for his crimes.

When a Garda officer is found in a local park beheaded with a tin whistle sticking out of his neck, Katie Maguire finds herself thrown into a case that could bring down the entire Garda from within.

This is a dark, grim murder mystery, along the lines of Jeffery Deaver. Masterson was a horror writer prior to trying his hand at mysteries, and it shows. Beyond the gore, this is a book that doesn’t look away from the horror and terror of its plot. Many would try to come at the darkness of the plot from the side, or from any safer angle. Masterson sets off headlong into the jaws of the beast, and takes the reader along with him.

My biggest problem with the book is that it’s noisy. There are numerous subplots banging around in the background, and sometimes it is hard to find the thread of the main plot through all the chatter. Perhaps this is the inevitable result of a long running series, and those who have read the previous books may find more in hose subplots than I did.

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

Book Review: The Air Raid Killer by Frank Goldammer

The Air Raid Killer by Frank Goldammer

Dresden, 1945, is a city on the edge. The Third Reich is in its (well deserved) death spiral, the Russians are encroaching to the east as American forces push through from the west, air raids are constant, and wartime rationing and an influx of refugees have left the city on the brink of starvation. Amidst all this chaos, a brutal killer stalks the streets. Max Heller is a Detective Inspector with the Dresden police, a man seeking justice in a country descended into paranoia and chaos. As the body count grows, Heller must not only find a way to stop a serial killer who strikes when the air raid sirens sound, but to ensure justice in a city still under the thumb of Hitler’s fanatics.

This book was fantastic, a noir in every sense of the world. Goldammer has painted a world in the deep blacks, grays, and browns of a world torn apart by war, an ancient city beset on all sides by enemies and destructive forces. Goldammer has painted us a vivid picture of a city under seige, and the hardships its people must endure. In the midst of starvation, overflowing refugee camps, and the brutality and paranoia of Hitler’s officials, one serial killer is something most people are content to overlook, to let slide without investigation as the realities of war seem so much mire dire. Max Heller is the perfect detective to place into this mess. His overarching sense of duty and justice compel him to see the case resolved, to ensure that he can do a small part to defend his world against true anarchy.

The story is compelling, with actual historical events woven through the plot. I finished the book in one day, more accurately one sitting. This is an engaging read, infused with the unreality and paranoia of the time period. Max Heller isn’t the most fleshed out protagonist out there, but he doesn’t have to be. Rather, he represents our “better angels” fighting a losing battle against horror.

Fans of WWII era stories, dark mysteries, or serial killer-related plots will really like this book.

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

Book Review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James


The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

In the 1950s, Idlewild Hall in rural Vermont was a place where families sent daughters they’d rather forget. The residents of the boarding school are illegitimate, traumatized, criminal. But the school may be haunted by more than bad memories; a spirit called Mary Hand is said to stalk the halls, and four roommates, bonded over shared misery, will face the spirits of Idlewild when one of them disappears.

Meanwhile, in 2014, a local journalist is shocked to hear that long-abandoned Idlewild Hall is being restored. Her own obsession with the overgrown and forgotten school started when her sister’s body was discovered on the grounds twenty years earlier. As she begins to dig into the history of the school, she finds old mysteries entwined with new, and a growing sense that something haunts the grounds of the old school.

This was a wonderful mystery story with a supernatural twist. St. James weaves her narrative between 1950 and 2014, slowly parsing out information and clues to the reader. The book is atmospheric; the boarding school exudes a palpable sense of menace and despair. Fiona Sheridan, the journalist, and the four roommates from 1950 are well-written, with the young students quickly becoming characters to care about and fear for. 

The supernatural elements of the story are well done, and fit organically into the plot. Who, or what, Mary Hand may be is dangled in front of the reader, but largely kept teasingly out of reach until the very end.

In all, this is a wonderfully satisfying mystery that avoids the pitfalls of the mystery thriller genre. Anyone who wants a ghost story mixed in with their mystery will enjoy this book.

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.