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: Prudence and Imprudence by Gail Carriger

 

prudence imprudence

Prudence and Imprudence by Gail Carriger

Okay, these books are pretty much a sequel to Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, so if you haven’t read those books, you probably aren’t going to get a lot out of them. However, you really should read that series, it is one of the best examples of paranormal-steampunk out there. But for now, if you keep reading, there’s going to be spoilers for the Parasol Protectorate series.

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So I was a huge fan of the previous books featuring Alexia Tarabotti and Lord Conall Maccon. Carriger manages to give us stuffy Victorians, steampunk gadgets, werewolves, vampires, and tea fanatics, and make the entire thing funny, entertaining, and (most astonishingly) not ridiculous.

Prudence and Imprudence continue the story two decades later, featuring (naturally) Alexia and Conall’s metanatural daughter, Prudence (though she prefers to go by Rue). Having been raised by a combination of her werewolf father, preternatural mother, and vampire spy master Lord Akeldama, Rue has had anything but the typical Victorian childhood. Fortunately, Rue is her mother’s daughter and thrives in the atypical. When Lord Akeldama presents Rue with her very own Dirigible for her birthday, she naturally takes to the skies with her best friends Percy and Primrose Tunstell, and Quesnel leFoux. Through the two books, she travels to first India and then Egypt, her time heavy with the style of adventures Alexia Tarabotti would have dived into in her day.

It is always hard to continue a series in the same world, but with new characters. People inevitably long for the good old days with the characters they know and love. Carriger does a great job of modernizing her story (to the 1890s, let’s not get crazy), and keeping enough of the old guard about to make the entry into Rue’s world both novel and satisfying (it doesn’t hurt that there are so many ageless characters to choose from). It is gratifying to see what became of some of our favorites in the intervening two decades, but Carriger keeps the focus on the newest generation, and does a wonderful job of it. Rue is definitely her mother’s daughter, though she would never admit it. Seeing Ivy’s twins grown up and rebellious in their own ways is fun. And of course, we have our requisite bad boy in Quesnel leFoux.

What I especially like in this series is Carriger’s willingness to tackle the dark sides of the Victorian era. She deals frankly (though in a steampunk fantasy way) with the violence the British wrought in India and their other colonies, and with the Victorian tendency to see people other than themselves as less than human. Rue marches straight into the teeth of these issues, and the books are the better for it. So many Victorian-era books glide over the problems with the era. I’m not opposed to romanticism on the face of it, but these books came through like a breath of fresh air.

If you were a fan of the Parasol Protectorate series, you should definitely check these books out. If you haven’t read the first series of books, this review is probably highly confusing. Go read ’em!

Book Review: These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas


These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas

Evelyn is bored. Bored with dresses and balls, bored with her mother’s constant matchmaking schemes, bored with the petty gentlemen she is forced to be pleasant to.

And so begins just about every Victorian-era book, no matter the genre. This one does branch out a bit more: Evelyn’s sister Rose disappears, and her trail follows a mysterious (and huge) Frenchman into London. With her parents concerned more for their reputation than Rose’s safety, Evelyn runs off to find Rose herself. Enlisting the help of dashing Mr. Kent, Evelyn is also forced to work with the infuriating Mr. Braddock, who has a game changing revelation for her: she and her sister may have special powers.

I’m not one of those people who automatically dismiss YA books as beneath my notice. There’s some fantastic work out there and some great stories being told. However, this is one of those genres where it is all too easy to fall into a formulaic trap. Like many recent psychological thrillers have been diminished by trying too hard to be the next Gone Girl, a lot of YA (especially the fantasy genre, which tends to be one of my favorites) suffers by trying to be the next Twilight or Hunger Games. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A young, headstrong girl is dissatisfied with her life, but unsure what she wants to do to improve it. After a calamitous event, she is forced to engage a wider, crueler world at its own level, discovering herself in the process. Oh, and you naturally need two potential romantic interests for her, one is “safe,” and has been around forever, the other someone she will never ever like, someone just so infuriating. . .

It sometimes seems like the same song set to different music. That’s not to say that books that follow the formula are all bad, but you need great characters, strong writing, and something special to set your story apart. Unfortunately, These Vicious Masks falls a bit short. Evelyn is intelligent and willing to defy convention if she can help others, but never becomes a truly sympathetic character. The love triangle is of the dimensions expected from the genre, and doesn’t deviate from the pattern.

Still, YA fantasy enthusiasts may want to give the book a go. I’ve always said that I am picky about the genre.

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

Book Review: Frankenstein Dreams edited by Michael Sims


Frankenstein Dreams edited by Michael Sims

So what did science fiction look like when modern science was still in its infancy? Michael Sims has put together a collection of 19th century short science fiction stories that illustrate not only the breadth and the creativity of the field prior to the turn of the 20th century, but also the creepy prescience of some of the writers (if not for strict scientific fact, then for topics that would remain scifi staples into the current day).

In this collection we find mechanical brides made to order, vicious monsters awaiting daring pilots in the upper levels of the atmosphere, superhuman senses, alternate dimensions, strange aliens, time travel, and apocalyptic plagues and disasters. The stories, which include samples from authors like Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, and Rudyard Kipling, range from chapter excerpts to short stories to stories fashioned so like news items that, War of the Worlds-style, many people accepted them as fact.

My biggest complaint is that for the bigger names in the collection, clearly selected for their name recognition to the larger public, Sims has largely chosen to include only bits of chapters from their most famous works. As someone who looks to these collections to find little known authors or stories, this was a bit frustrating. I would have preferred something a little more off the beaten path. 

Fans of Victorian literature and scifi buffs should check this volume out. In these stories, we can see the seed of inspiration for a number of modern tales.

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

Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

shadow-bright-and-burningA Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

Henrietta Howel can set herself on fire. Along with all the other problems brought on with self immolation is one unfortunate fact: women in Victorian England aren’t allowed to do magic.

Welcome to a lovecraftian Victorian England, where a witch opened a portal into another dimension, setting free the Ancient Ones, hideous monsters bent on the submission and eradication of the human race. (Male) sorcerers are tasked with trying to hold the monsters at bay, and any magic outside the narrow confines of their purview is punishable by ugly death.

Henrietta Howel grows up in Jane Eyre-esque poverty at a charity school for girls, trying to keep her firestarter tendencies under the radar. But when a visiting sorcerer discovers her magical abilities, the cat is out of the bag. Rather than be put to death, she is brought to London to fulfill an ancient prophecy which will pit her against the Ancient Ones as humanity’s last hope. But is she really the chosen one?

All in all I found this book to be an engaging and fast-paced read. Cluess borrows elements from several sources (Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, and Lovecraft being the most obvious), but she is able to make the combination work (and let’s face it, bringing Jane Eyre into the Cthulhu mythos is not a task for the faint of heart). Parts of the book were genuinely creepy, especially the familiars, humans transformed by the ancient ones to do their bidding. The major flaw in this book comes from the overdone romance angle, as our heroine has not one, not two, but three possible romantic entanglements within the book. Is it too much to ask for the protagonist to stand on her own for a bit before delving into the pathos of teenage love?

Ah well. In all, this book was very enjoyable and I look forward to the next in the series. I think Cluess has a promising future ahead of her.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. A Shadow Bright and Burning is currently available for purchase.

Book Review: Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill


Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill

 

You’ve read Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and the like, yes? You’ve read any number of the countless mysteries, romances, and adventure stories that are set in the Victorian Era, yes? Well, Therese Oneill is here to answer the questions you didn’t even know you had. The questions you probably wouldn’t even admit to wondering about.

For example, how are you going to get dressed? What does your underwear look like? How do you answer nature’s call? How should you act on your wedding night? How do you keep you husband from bringing back syphilis when he’s out on the town? If you’ve ever wanted to know what Victorians used for toilet paper (LOTS of different things), what you would do when you got your period (try not to panic), what causes consumption (everything) and/or what causes hysteria (everything else, but especially your uterus), then this book is meant for you. Therese Oneill provides a deeply researched, richly detailed look at how women lived in the 19th century. Oh, and she’s hilarious to boot.

Oneill reminds me a great deal of Mary Roach. Her approach is thorough and scientific, but her focus is on those aspects of life generally (and purposefully) left out of the narrative. Oneill’s funny, irreverent tone is sometimes at odds with the subject matter (how easy it is to get committed to an insane asylum, just how limited your life will be, just how common marital infidelity is), but she tackles each subject with gusto, and in these more serious moments, we learn to appreciate just how far we’ve come.

This book is perfect for history buffs, for anyone in love with the era, or for the merely curious. I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. You will thoroughly enjoy this book, and you will learn a hell of a lot in the course of reading it.

An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Unmentionable will be available for purchase on October 25th, 2016.