Serena’s Review: “Where the Lost Wander”

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Book: “Where the Lost Wander” by Amy Harmon

Publishing Info: Lake Union Publishing, April 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: The Overland Trail, 1853: Naomi May never expected to be widowed at twenty. Eager to leave her grief behind, she sets off with her family for a life out West. On the trail, she forms an instant connection with John Lowry, a half-Pawnee man straddling two worlds and a stranger in both.

But life in a wagon train is fraught with hardship, fear, and death. Even as John and Naomi are drawn to each other, the trials of the journey and their disparate pasts work to keep them apart. John’s heritage gains them safe passage through hostile territory only to come between them as they seek to build a life together.

When a horrific tragedy strikes, decimating Naomi’s family and separating her from John, the promises they made are all they have left. Ripped apart, they can’t turn back, they can’t go on, and they can’t let go. Both will have to make terrible sacrifices to find each other, save each other, and eventually… make peace with who they are.

Review: Great authors are hard to come by. It’s especially exciting when you come across one who excels in one of your favorite genres. But the magical unicorn great author is one who seems able to write excellent novels in almost any genre! Authors like Sylvia Moreno Garcia and Naomi Novik come to mind. Amy Harmon turns out to be yet another of those authors. Everything she writes is a solid, individual piece of art, and yet she flits from genre, time period, and theme with the ease of an author who has written twenty books of the same ilk before. It’s so impressive. All of this to say, I was very excited when I saw she had written a historical novel about the Oregon Trail. There aren’t too many books out there (at least that I’ve found) that tackle this period of time, so I was excited to see what Harmon had to bring, knowing full well that she was more than up to the task of delivery something great once again!

Like others who came before them, Naomi and her family brave the dangers of the long trip out West on the promise of a new life to be found by the end. For Naomi, a young widow, this opportunity to begin again is precious to her. But like all travelers of the trail, Naomi and her family need the benefits offered by a knowledgeable guide. For this, they turn to John Lowry, a half Native American man whose familiarity with the territory is sure to help their journey run smoothly. Along the way, Naomi and John feel themselves drawn closer and closer together. But disaster and tragedy strike, and, now separated, John and Naomi must fight to return to each other.

So, beyond being excellent, I think I can also say that Harmon always writes books that will pull at the heartstrings in some way or another. As much as I’ve loved all of her books, this one included, I haven’t managed to get through any of them without tearing up. And this one had big time tears! Not to say that this is a bad thing. Indeed, it speaks to the power of Harmon’s writing that you will quickly find yourself so immersed in this world and story that the sheer power of will found in our main characters is enough to pull at your heart. Not to mention the very real dangers and tragedies they each must face in the course of this story.

Harmon doesn’t shy away from portraying the harsh realities of this time and place (she also has an excellent author’s note at the end about her own family’s history and her approach to researching and writing this story.) For his part, John clearly doesn’t fit into either of his parents’ worlds. Not that of his Native American mother with whom he only lived the first few years of his life. Nor the white settlers who continually side eye him even though he has lived and worked alongside them his entire adult life. There was no neat solution or simplistic “good” or “bad” guys. Instead, Harmon took a nuanced look at the life and experience of an individual in this role. For her part, Naomi’s life is not straightforward either. She’s a young woman (though widowhood does offer a certain sort of freedom) in a time period where she has very little agency over her life and choices. Instead, she must work within the strict options given to her, often having to make heartbreaking decisions just to survive.

The romance itself was lovely. It was a slow-burn romance, and we had plenty of time to get to know both John and Naomi individually. And then they are separated, and we have to get to know them once again when they must rise to the challenges set before them. When they come together again, it’s bittersweet and lovely. Like I said, there’s a lot of tragedy in this book, but the for its part, the romance itself is completely satisfying.

This is definitely a challenging read, so readers picking it up should be prepared to read some darker themes, both of violence against women as well as death. But all of the tragedy is balanced with beauty and a clear-eyed look at life during this time period. Fans of historical fiction, specifically the time of the Oregon Trail, should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: Beauty and heartbreak are equally balanced in this lovely work of historical fiction.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Where the Lost Wander” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Historical Fiction 2020 and Amazing Books that are Barely Known.

Blog Tour: “The Murder of Mr. Wickham”

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Book: “The Murder of Mr. Wickham” by Claudia Gray

Publishing Info: Vintage, May 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: The happily married Mr. Knightley and Emma are throwing a house party, bringing together distant relatives and new acquaintances—characters beloved by Jane Austen fans. Definitely not invited is Mr. Wickham, whose latest financial scheme has netted him an even broader array of enemies. As tempers flare and secrets are revealed, it’s clear that everyone would be happier if Mr. Wickham got his comeuppance. Yet they’re all shocked when Wickham turns up murdered—except, of course, for the killer hidden in their midst.

Nearly everyone at the house party is a suspect, so it falls to the party’s two youngest guests to solve the mystery: Juliet Tilney, the smart and resourceful daughter of Catherine and Henry, eager for adventure beyond Northanger Abbey; and Jonathan Darcy, the Darcys’ eldest son, whose adherence to propriety makes his father seem almost relaxed. In a tantalizing fusion of Austen and Christie, the unlikely pair must put aside their own poor first impressions and uncover the guilty party—before an innocent person is sentenced to hang.

Review: There is a truth universally acknowledged: the more ardent a fan of Jane Austen a reader is, the more critical that fan will be of any and every Jane Austen adaptation/sequel. I feel fairly confident making a generalization like that, and I would easily include myself in it. There have been times when my snobbery has reached levels not seen in any other favorite genre or beloved series of books. But I’m glad that I didn’t let this lesser self dictate whether or not I picked up this book, cuz, man, other than “Death Comes to Pemberley,” this is probably my favorite Jane Austen continuation yet!

In Emma’s view, a house party is always just the thing to cheer matters up! So she and her husband, Mr. Knightley, gather a large group of friends, acquaintances, and family members to share in a visit at their home. This cheerful event is made much less so, however, when the disreputable Mr. Wickham shows up one dark and stormy night. And what’s worse than an unwelcome guest? One that is rude enough to get themselves murdered on the premises, thus leaving all the remaining guests left as suspects. With so many members of the group having motives for thinking the world would be better off without Mr. Wickham, the Darcy’s oldest son, Jonathan, and the young Juliet Tilney decide to tackle the mystery themselves. But as they get closer and closer to discovering the murderer, the more horrifying the truth becomes, because it must have been one of their dear friends!

It’s immediately obvious that the author is herself a huge fan of Jane Austen. This book is so clearly a love letter to all of these characters and to all of the fans that it’s impossible to miss. This also makes the reading experience entirely dependent on one’s familiarity with these characters and stories. There are so many small nods and inside jokes that will only be appreciated by ardent fans, that the reading experience will likely be vastly different for those familiar with these stories and those who have been less-exposed. And because the story includes characters from all of the books, the reader pretty much has to have all six novels well under the belt to appreciate the work the author has put into creating in this story.

As fun as all of these Easter egg clues were to spot, what really made this book stand out was how well the author understood the characters she was working with, in all of their strengths and weaknesses. Most especially, she envisioned how these personalities would play off one another, both between each other and within their own marriages (since, due to the nature of Austen’s books, we see very little of what these characters’ lives are like in the marital state). Gray doesn’t shy away from pointing out some of the flaws in these characters that could drive wedges into their marriages. However, everything is handled with such care that you never feel like any of these choices or actions are out of character with the originals. Instead, we see how many of them grow even further once some of these characteristics are exposed to the harsh light of day.

From a purely preferential state, I was glad to see that Emma and Knightley were by far the most stable of the couples. Not only do they know each other much better than anyone else (Emma having grown up with Knightley as a good friend from the very beginning), but the original book does a good job dealing with each of their flaws to begin with. Fans of “Mansfield Park,” however, may be dismayed to see that Fanny and Edmund, on the other hand, probably have the most work to do. Again, this never feels like an overt critique of the original story, but instead seems perfectly in line with these two characters and the way their romance played out (honestly, one of the more weird ones when you think about it). It’s satisfying to see Fanny come more into her own and Edmund be forced to reckon with some of the ways that he didn’t do his best with regards to Fanny and their relationship.

All of this written and I haven’t even touched on the mystery! I honestly can’t say enough good thing about this as well. It’s truly impressive how well Gray managed to work Wickham into all of these characters’ lives in ways that felt completely natural and inline with their stories. Not once did his relationship with these characters feel forced or shoe-horned in to fit the narrative. Instead, it felt completely organic and believable. Thus making the entire thing so stressful! It starts to become truly horrifying wondering how this mystery is going to be resolved without vilifying one of our beloved main characters!

I also really enjoyed the original characters of Jonathan and Juliet. It’s tough work to create new characters and stand them up against classics like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, but Gray manages it! For one thing, the book features so many viewpoints that Jonathan and Juliet are by no means the sole focus. We get plenty of time with our other favorites, but I also began to appreciate both Jonathan and Juliet in their own right. I was also pleased to see that while there are hints of a potential romance between these two, the story didn’t commit to anything in this arena. There simply wasn’t enough time in this book to not do a disserve to the mystery by trying to force in a fully-fledged romance as well.

All of this to say, I highly recommend this book to any Jane Austen fan out there! The more familiar you are with the originals, the more you’re likely to enjoy this!

Rating 9: Simply excellent and sure to please even the most picky Jane Austen fan!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Murder of Mr. Wickham” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Jane Austen Sequels and Pastiches.

Kate’s Review: “The Hacienda”

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Book: “The Hacienda” by Isabel Cañas

Publishing Info: Berkley, May 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Mexican Gothic meets Rebecca in this debut supernatural suspense novel, set in the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence, about a remote house, a sinister haunting, and the woman pulled into their clutches

In the overthrow of the Mexican government, Beatriz’s father is executed and her home destroyed. When handsome Don Rodolfo Solórzano proposes, Beatriz ignores the rumors surrounding his first wife’s sudden demise, choosing instead to seize the security his estate in the countryside provides. She will have her own home again, no matter the cost. But Hacienda San Isidro is not the sanctuary she imagined.

When Rodolfo returns to work in the capital, visions and voices invade Beatriz’s sleep. The weight of invisible eyes follows her every move. Rodolfo’s sister, Juana, scoffs at Beatriz’s fears—but why does she refuse to enter the house at night? Why does the cook burn copal incense at the edge of the kitchen and mark its doorway with strange symbols? What really happened to the first Doña Solórzano?

Beatriz only knows two things for certain: Something is wrong with the hacienda. And no one there will help her. Desperate for help, she clings to the young priest, Padre Andrés, as an ally. No ordinary priest, Andrés will have to rely on his skills as a witch to fight off the malevolent presence haunting the hacienda and protect the woman for whom he feels a powerful, forbidden attraction. But even he might not be enough to battle the darkness. Far from a refuge, San Isidro may be Beatriz’s doom.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I am a little embarrassed to admit that Isabel Cañas’s debut Gothic horror novel “The Hacienda” was just sitting on my Kindle for months. I requested it pretty early out from the release date, and I know that when I do that books do tend to just sit. By the time I deemed it right to pick up, the chiding ‘downloaded on ___’ indicator was staring at me and making me fidget. And then when I started it, I felt myself all the more annoyed because holy COW. This book was immediately awesome! With a description that has “Mexican Gothic” meets “Rebecca” I knew it was going to be a treat, but boy howdy was I not ready for the treat that it was. I absolutely LOVED “The Hacienda”.

It bears repeating. (source)

Right off the top I want to say that the ghost story and Gothic elements are ON POINT. Cañas knows how to set the scene and slowly build the dread, pretty much starting right from Beatríz’s arrival to Hacienda San Isidro when she sees gutted rodents strewn about the courtyard. Cats are the culprits, she is told, though there is tension in the air, and it slowly builds and consumes until the tension is unbearable. There are plenty of haunted house moments applied here, from cold spots to slamming doors, to glowing eyes seen in the darkness for a fleeting second, to skeletons found in hidden places. It soon becomes clear to Beatríz that there is something haunting this estate, and as she tries desperately to get someone to believe her, it’s the servants and the locals who have the most insight. When most Priests scoff at her, one, Padre Andrés, answers her call for an exorcism. I loved Beatríz as a tormented and determined protagonist, as she both fits the bill for a Gothic heroine while also pushing against stereotypes as she refuses to be gaslit over what is happening in the home. And I also really liked Andrés, whose Father Karas-esque test of faith hides the fact that he is, at his heart, a witch whose practices have been hidden and repressed by the colonial culture that has taken root (more on that soon). They make a great horror story team, as they are easy to root for a relate to and make you become very invested very quickly. Which makes the haunting they are dealing with all the scarier. And makes the forbidden attraction between them even more high stakes. And yes, SWOON WORTHY.

But there are also a lot of underpinning themes regarding classism, racism, colonialism, and political upheaval that make “The Hacidenda” all the richer when it comes to the story it aims to tell. The aforementioned priest/witch, Andrés, basically went into the priesthood to hide his witchcraft and folk healing that has been passed down through the generations, as the Inquisition came to Mexico and practicing such would make him a target. The previous mistress, Doña Catalina, was abusive and cruel to her servants, who are of lower social standing and are also mostly mestizo in their heritage, and she sees them as subhuman. Juana, the half sister of Don Rodolfo, is a child of a hacendado but as a woman with a mysterious family background has no social claim to his wealth. And even Beatríz has connections to these political themes, as her father was murdered by Don Rodolfo’s party, and as a woman has few options and sees marriage to him as a way to keep herself safe. It’s when these real life horrors and injustices are applied to the horror tale that it really stands out, bringing in a critique of colonized Mexico and the damage it has done to the people who live there. Cañas has a fantastic authors note at the back of this book that really puts it all into context, and she weaves it in perfectly.

And on top of all that, I really loved Cañas’s writing style. She has the right flow, the most haunting and at times beautiful imagery, and paces everything just right. This is a fantastic debut.

“The Hacienda” is can’t miss horror fiction. Scary and thoughtful and a must read to be sure.

Rating 9: Gothic and creepy with ghosts, witchcraft, and commentary, “The Hacienda” is a great horror novel that can’t be missed!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hacienda” is included on the Goodreads lists “Latinix Horror/Fantasy”, and “2022 Gothic”.

Kate’s Review: “The Fervor”

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Book: “The Fervor” by Alma Katsu

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, April 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | IndieBound

Book Description: From the acclaimed and award-winning author of The Hunger and The Deep comes a new psychological and supernatural twist on the horrors of the Japanese American internment camps in World War II.

1944: As World War II rages on, the threat has come to the home front. In a remote corner of Idaho, Meiko Briggs and her daughter, Aiko, are desperate to return home. Following Meiko’s husband’s enlistment as an air force pilot in the Pacific months prior, Meiko and Aiko were taken from their home in Seattle and sent to one of the internment camps in the Midwest. It didn’t matter that Aiko was American-born: They were Japanese, and therefore considered a threat by the American government.

Mother and daughter attempt to hold on to elements of their old life in the camp when a mysterious disease begins to spread among those interned. What starts as a minor cold quickly becomes spontaneous fits of violence and aggression, even death. And when a disconcerting team of doctors arrive, nearly more threatening than the illness itself, Meiko and her daughter team up with a newspaper reporter and widowed missionary to investigate, and it becomes clear to them that something more sinister is afoot, a demon from the stories of Meiko’s childhood, hell-bent on infiltrating their already strange world.

Inspired by the Japanese yokai and the jorogumo spider demon, The Fervor explores a supernatural threat beyond what anyone saw coming; the danger of demonization, a mysterious contagion, and the search to stop its spread before it’s too late.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

I say this a lot on here, but I have a few must read authors and this post is about another one. I have been living for Alma Katsu’s historical horror stories since I picked up “The Hunger” a few years ago, the promise of a horror retelling of the Donner Party too amazing to pass up. We went on to “The Deep” which brought us ghosts and the Titanic. And when I heard about “The Fervor”, and how it was going to be a historical horror story set during Japanese American Internment during World War II, I was both incredibly excited, but also hit by a sense of grief. That’s usually how I feel when I read about the Internment,as I’ve covered on here in a couple of other book reviews. But I was also very excited to see what she was going to do with it. Because Alma Katsu is always unique and surprising with her scares that blend history with horror.

Once again Katsu has created a deeply disturbing horror story steeped in historical events that have their own Earthly horrors to them. “The Fervor” has a few different subgenres that it taps into, from contagion horror to political conspiracy to some fantastic Japanese folklore involving yōkai and demons alike, all within the context of the home front during World War II where America had imprisoned its own citizens because of their Japanese ancestry and heritage. I really liked all of it and how Katsu blends it all together, weaving the supernatural elements with the real world ones. There are strange and dreamy moments of kitsune fox spirits, or visions the jorogumo spider demon dressed as a woman in a red kimono who appears with a swaddled bundle, and usually brings disaster if you get too close. I’m familiar with the kitsune story, but the jorogumo spider demon was new and it was so, SO creepy. I mean, spiders are already not my favorite thing, but it was the imagery of the woman in red and the knowledge that something bad was going to happen when she appeared that really set me on edge.

But let’s be real. The greater horror at the heart of “The Fervor” is the horrors of xenophobia and racism and the oppression of the Japanese American citizens under Executive Order 9066, and how the American Government and society at large justified it. In spite of the fact that Meiko and Aiko obviously have nothing to do with the fighting in the Pacific (there are some distant connections…. but that’s all I will say and I want to reiterate that Meiko and Aiko are innocent, like all those held prisoner during this awful period), they are victims of distrust and racism. And once a mysterious illness starts spreading through Minidoka, and mysterious government agents start arriving and acting shady about said illness, we get a whole new layer of horror that has echoes of some of the things we are seeing today. Katsu draws connections between modern day racism towards the Asian American community (especially right now, given that hate crimes again Asian Americans, especially women, have been on the rise in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic), as well as the ways that our government bodies are willing to Other non-white groups to gain power of various kinds, and to keep the darker realities hidden from the public. I’m really trying not to spoil anything. Just know that it all feels like as the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s powerful parallels, and it’s the true horror of the novel.

What’s interesting about this historical retelling horror tale that Katsu has become known for is that the Japanese Internment and World War II is still, for some people, in living memory. With the Donner Party and the sinking of the Titanic it’s been so long that living witnesses aren’t really a complicating factor, but Katsu makes sure that the not so distant time period isn’t complicating to the story she is trying to tell. We have a mix of fictional characters like Meiko, Aiko, and Fran, but also characters inspired by real people like Archie Mitchell, the missionary whose wife was killed by a Fu-Go balloon bomb in Oregon (if you haven’t read up on the Fu-Go balloons it’s DEEPLY fascinating and I recommend you do). Katsu explores all the different angles of these characters and how their races, genders, and social standings have placed them where they are in society, and how that in turn ties into the greater themes of the story. For Meiko and Aiko, their race has made them enemies of the government. For Fran, she is a white woman but is also Jewish, and is also trying to make a career for herself in a world where men have the power to stop her dreams for any perceived misstep. And then there’s Archie, a white Christian man who is in deep mourning due to his wife’s death at the hands of a strange bomb that can cannot get any information on from authorities, who is conflicted between his rage and his guilt for past indiscretions, and how this leads him to some very dangerous people. They are all interesting and complex, and I loved following all of them as they all eventually come together to try and solve just what is happening with this mysterious illness, and how it connects to the Fu-Go’s and the Internment camps. It’s stellar characterization.

“The Fervor” is another disturbing and effective horror story from Alma Katsu. She is doing historical horror in ways that are so unique, and this one has a deep pain and anger within its pages that feels incredibly warranted. One of the scariest things it reveals is that America hasn’t learned much from one of its most despicable moments.

Rating 8: A compelling and still too relevant story about racism, Othering, jingoism, and fear, “The Fervor” is another well done historical horror remix of tragic events from Alma Katsu.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Fervor” is included on the Goodreads lists “Internment Camps in Fiction”, and “2022 Horror Novels Written by Women and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Serena’s Review: “Murder at Queen’s Landing”

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Book: “Murder at Queen’s Landing” by Andrea Penrose

Publishing Info: Kensington, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: When Lady Cordelia, a brilliant mathematician, and her brother, Lord Woodbridge, disappear from London, rumors swirl concerning fraudulent bank loans and a secret consortium engaged in an illicit—and highly profitable—trading scheme that threatens the entire British economy. The incriminating evidence mounts, but for Charlotte and Wrexford, it’s a question of loyalty and friendship. And so they begin a new investigation to clear the siblings’ names, uncover their whereabouts, and unravel the truth behind the whispers.

As they delve into the murky world of banking and international arbitrage, Charlotte and Wrexford also struggle to navigate their increasingly complex feelings for each other. But the clock is ticking—a cunning mastermind has emerged . . . along with some unexpected allies—and Charlotte and Wrexford must race to prevent disasters both economic and personal as they are forced into a dangerous match of wits in an attempt to beat the enemy at his own game.

Previously Reviewed: “Murder on Black Swan Lane” and “Murder at Half Moon Gate” and “Murder at Kensington Palace”

Review: Back again for my seemingly monthly review of a book from the “Wrexford and Sloane” series. I’ve had my up and down moments with this series, but now I am beginning to catch up to the author’s release schedule, so it’s becoming a bit of a goal to complete it at this point. Overall, I was pleased with this entry, which just makes it all the more easy to move forward with this series!

Wrexford and Charlotte have begun to make a bit of a name for themselves in the crime-solving department. Of course, each is pursuing these goals under the guise of various other personal personas: Wrexford, a rather grumpy, scientifically minded member of the gentry, and Charlotte as the hidden genius behind a popular satirical cartoonist. But their friends know of their abilities, and it is these friends who call upon them when Lady Cordelia and her brother go missing. As Wrexford and Charlotte dive into the fray, they find themselves getting caught up with players who are more powerful than any they have grappled with before.

I really liked this entry into this series. There were a few things that were changed up that really gave the books the boost they needed. There had been a bit of a rut forming prior to this, so I was pleased to see the author address this. We had two changes made to the general story. One, there were a few chapters where we strayed from Charlottle and Wrexford’s particular stories. Instead, we got to see what Raven was up to. Raven and Hawk have been excellent side characters, but they had been becoming a bit predictable in their “street wise” ways. So having a few chapters where we saw Raven in action helped personify him more as a character in his own right.

We also had a few scenes where our characters were transplanted outside of their typical London domains. It was refreshing to see them interacting in new ways and to explore new locations other than the dark streets of the city. It opened up new angles on our characters and seemed to brighten the story considerably.

The mystery itself was also good. They typically have been, so that wasn’t really a surprise here. I will say, however, that this one walked a fine line of being almost a bit too complicated. I applaud the author for using each book to explore a different unique scientific or economic force that was prevalent in this time period. To do this, however, there is a necessary amount of explanation that needs to be conveyed to the reader in each story to fully lay out the stakes of the situation. And here, too, we got to explore how new concepts that were just entering the scene could be used and manipulated, for good and evil. It just so happened that the way some of these wove together got to be confusing and hard to keep track of as the story unraveled.

I was pleased to see the relationship between Wrexford and Sloane progress nicely. I think this will be a welcome change for many fans of the series. On the other hand, a lot of the emotional stakes for this particular mystery were centered around characters that we knew very little of. Lady Cordelia and her brother, while familiar to a certain extent from previous books, just didn’t have the same pull as the previous mysteries that tied more directly to our two main characters. That said, it is nice to see the cast becoming more fleshed out.

Fans of the series will likely be pleased with this book. It took a few steps forward in important aspects of the story, though I feel like, strangely, the mystery itself was the biggest challenge. Though, I still enjoyed that well enough, too.

Rating 8: Another solid entry. If you’re looking for a reliable (but not mind-blowing) historical mystery series, this one’s a good bet even four books in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder at Queen’s Landing” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Historical Mystery 2020 and Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.

Kate’s Review: “All the White Spaces”


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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “All the White Spaces” by Ally Wilkes

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, March 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a finished hardcover from the publisher.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | IndieBound

Book Description: Something deadly and mysterious stalks the members of an isolated polar expedition in this haunting and spellbinding historical horror novel, perfect for fans of Dan Simmons’ The Terror and Alma Katsu’s The Hunger.

In the wake of the First World War, Jonathan Morgan stows away on an Antarctic expedition, determined to find his rightful place in the world of men. Aboard the expeditionary ship of his hero, the world-famous explorer James “Australis” Randall, Jonathan may live as his true self—and true gender—and have the adventures he has always been denied. But not all is smooth sailing: the war casts its long shadow over them all, and grief, guilt, and mistrust skulk among the explorers.

When disaster strikes in Antarctica’s frozen Weddell Sea, the men must take to the land and overwinter somewhere which immediately seems both eerie and wrong; a place not marked on any of their part-drawn mapsof the vast white continent. Now completely isolated, Randall’s expedition has no ability to contact the outside world. And no one is coming to rescue them. In the freezing darkness of the Polar night, where the aurora creeps across the sky, something terrible has been waiting to lure them out into its deadly landscape…

As the harsh Antarctic winter descends, this supernatural force will prey on their deepest desires and deepest fears to pick them off one by one. It is up to Jonathan to overcome his own ghosts before he and the expedition are utterly destroyed.

Review: Thank you to Atria Books for sending me a hardcover copy of this book!

This past Halloween season I invited my Terror Tuesday horror movie friends over for a backyard movie night and bonfire. In the group text we were debating on possible movies to watch, and one title we decided on was “The Thing”. You know, the 1980s Sci-Fi horror movie by John Carpenter in which an Antarctic research team is trapped in their research station with an alien that can shapeshift and picks them off one by one. It’s a really fun movie, and it’s one that I kept thinking about as I read “All the White Spaces” by Ally Wilkes. I’m sure that’s by design (given that a couple characters share names with characters in that movie), and the similarities are there, and to make it all the more method I was reading it in Duluth on a night where the windchill was in the negative twenties. Talk about perfect.

But as I was reading it, “Thing” vibes or not, I realized that Wilkes was doing something unique with a story theme we’ve seen before, because our main character, Jonathan Morgan, is a trans man during the World War I era. And I’m going to start with characters and time period because of that uniqueness. I liked the character set up of Jonathan as a trans man, and how he has found himself on an Arctic exploration ship after the death of his older brothers Rufus and Francis in the War. It gives him the perfect motivation, as he felt left behind when they went to war and he had to stay behind because his family and society did not understand his gender. I thought that Wilkes did a really good job of portraying a realistic and in the time trans man who has immense guilt over his older brothers death. His grief makes him want to connect to them in ways that he never did when they were alive, and decides stowing away on an expedition team that they had always been interested in is the way to do it. I also thought that Jonathan’s class privilege still being a blinding factor as well as his general naïveté due to youth and said privilege made him well rounded and complex (and at times very frustrating, which I imagine was the point). His interactions with the other men on the ship as a trans man in hiding was at times tense because of the secret we know Jonathan is keeping, as is the general idea of Antarctic travel during a time when said exploration is dangerous and enthralling. We get to see a little bit into the motivations of the other men, though it adds a bit to the mystery as well. I especially liked the character of Tarlington, an ostracized member of the team due to his scientific role as well as his conscientious objector status in the wake of the First World War. The tidbits of the time period, both in societal themes and characterization, felt well researched.

And Wilkes really does find the horror in both the supernatural as well as the very real dangers of Antarctic exploration during this time period. I can’t even imagine going on this kind of voyage back at the beginning of the 20th Century (I can barely imagine doing this kind of thing right now!), and Wilkes takes the ‘everything that can go wrong WILL go wrong’ approach. Speaking to the realistic stuff first, as that was the stuff that was the scariest for me, there is a glut to pick from. We have the paranoia of being in an isolated place. We have eternal darkness for months on end. We have the VERY real dangers of the cold and what it can do to the body (this was the worst for me; there was one scene in particular that was so gruesome and disturbing I actually put the book down for a bit so I could just decompress). And we have the very understandable fear of a trans person who is hiding his identity from a number of strangers who are becoming more and more unpredictable in dangerous circumstances. It makes for VERY tense reading.

And yes, there is supernatural stuff going on as well, and Wilkes makes it VERY unsettling and creepy, as well as somewhat metaphorical. Which is always good. As Jonathan et al are seeing shadows and beings and other things out of the corners of their eyes or on the horizon, we get to play with potential unreliable narrators (albeit in the third person) who may just be going insane due to their circumstances. But the descriptions of the figures as they slowly make themselves known, oof! I love the weird ambiguity these kinds of reveals can tread on for a good chunk of the narrative at hand, and just thinking of this kind of thing in THIS setting? AUGH!

Antarctic exploration just seems dangerous! (source)

“All the White Spaces” is some solid and scary arctic horror with a really well done trans perspective that I haven’t seen much of in the horror genre. It feels like that’s changing, which is great. I cannot wait to see what Ally Wilkes brings us next, because this was SO creepy. And it made me so glad that Spring is almost here.

Rating 8: Dark, disturbing, and unique with its perspective, “All the White Spaces” is a must for those who are interested in expeditions of the past, body horror, and “The Thing”.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All the White Spaces” is included on the Goodreads lists “Transgender Horror”, and “2022 Horror Novels Written by Women and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Book Club Review: “Project Duchess”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Romance”, in which we each picked a book that is a romance, or has elements that fit romance tropes to a T. For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Project Duchess” by Sabrina Jeffries

Publishing Info: Zebra, June 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Romance Trope: Grumpy/Sunshine

Book Description: A series of stepfathers and a difficult childhood have left Fletcher “Grey” Pryde, 5th Duke of Greycourt, with a guarded heart, enviable wealth, and the undeserved reputation of a rogue. Grey’s focus on expanding his dukedom allows him little time to find a wife. But when his mother is widowed yet again and he meets the charmingly unconventional woman managing his stepfather’s funeral, he’s shocked to discover how much they have in common. Still, Grey isn’t interested in love, no matter how pretty, or delightfully outspoken, the lady . . .
 
Beatrice Wolfe gave up on romance long ago, and the arrogant Duke of Greycourt with his rakish reputation isn’t exactly changing her mind. Then Grey agrees to assist his grief-stricken mother with her latest “project”: schooling spirited, unfashionable Beatrice for her debut. Now that Beatrice is seeing through Grey’s charms to his wounded heart, she’s having trouble keeping him at arm’s length. But once Grey starts digging into her family’s secrets, she must decide whether her loyalties lie with her family . . . or with the man whose lessons capture her heart . . .   

Serena’s Thoughts

Ostensibly, this book should have been for me. When I do read romance, I generally prefer historical romance, with all of those grand ball scenes and the obsessively weird culture of manners. I find that the overly formal way of moving through life in these books is a nice balance to the actual bodice-ripping romance of them. Sadly, this book wasn’t for me though.

There were a few problems that I had. Firstly, the romance itself doesn’t feel very well built up, with the “hero” pretty much sexualizing the heroine immediately. Obviously, some of this is expected in romance novels, so it’s not the fact that it happened that was the problem. More, it was the fact that it was right off the bat which just immediately set him up in a bad light for me. Beyond that, the book is very “tell-y” with this character in general. We’re told over and over again that he’s this “rake-ish” individual, but we never see any evidence of this “bad boy” persona.

Much of this problem comes down to the fact that the entire book takes place on the family’s country estate. That’s right! There are no grand ball room scenes or society gossip, because the entire story is removed from all of that. Instead, we have only Grey’s family and Beatrice’s brother for any and all social interactions. Not only does it feel limited, but it was very obvious that the author was almost equally devoted to setting up all of these other characters as potential leads in her future books as she was with telling the actual story on hand. It all played against me becoming at all invested in Grey and Beatrice.

I also didn’t love the mystery that was included in this story. Again, this probably should have been a hit for me as, when I do read mysteries, they’re often historical mysteries of just this sort. But here, by cramming the mystery in alongside the romance, the author missed the mark on both. The romance was lukewarm. And the mystery was unappealing. Not only did we always know that the main suspect would be innocent, but the story ends on a cliffhanger in a misguided attempt to get readers to pick up the next book. In my case, that just worked against it. I felt even more put off by the story in not having this resolved. This plot line took up a ton of page time and arguably reduced changes to increase my interest in the romance of the story, the thing most readers who pick up this kind of book will be looking for. Fans of historical romance can likely find better options out there.

Kate’s Thoughts

Okay, we have officially moved into romance territory that I rarely dare to tread. I can count the number of ‘bodice ripper’ romance on one hand, including this one… And I think that the number is 2. MAYBE 3 if we want to be a little loosey goosey with our time periods. And while thus far our book club romances have been mostly contemporary (with one fantasy), I knew a Regency romance would probably have to happen. So I went into “Project Duchess” trying to have an open mind. But by the time I was finished, I realized that this subgenre of romance really… REALLY isn’t for me.

I have a lot of the same thoughts as Serena, from the clunky way that the characters are used, to the telling vs showing, to the isolated setting (though I admit that I had NO idea that this was a thing until it came up in book club; it wasn’t until Serena pointed out that keeping it on a country estate with no dances, urban gossip, or new characters was incredibly limiting. Once she pointed it out I was like ‘oh hey, yeah!!!’). I also thought that giving Beatrice a darker backstory involving her lecherous uncle wasn’t handled super well, as it was there to make her tragic but wasn’t examined in a way that felt healthy. One good fuck probably isn’t going to wash away trauma. I know it’s a romance novel and a little unrealistic storytelling isn’t a crime (in any book really), but it just didn’t sit right with me.

AND I am going to echo my frustration with the mystery. I, being a gal who loves a good murder plot, wanted to know what HAD happened to all of Lydia’s husbands! Once it clicked that we weren’t going to get any answers in this book, as the story was setting up a whole series involving all the boring characters (excluding Gwyn. I liked Gwyn), I was pretty frustrated.

“Project Duchess” was a miss for me. I would say that maybe it’s just because it’s not my genre, but seeing Serena’s review above, it makes me think it’s maybe a miss all around.

Serena’s Rating 6: Not for me, which was a shock considering that, on paper, it should have been right up my alley.

Kate’s Rating 4: I wasn’t expecting too much but was still disappointed.

Book Club Questions

  1. How well do this hero and heroine fit the “grump/sunshine” romance trope?
  2. What did you think about the mystery at the heart of the novel? What predictions do you have going forward?
  3. Beatrice’s history with her uncle is quite dark. How well do you think the book tackled this topic?
  4. What did you think of Beatrice and Greycourt as a couple and the various iterations of their romance that we saw throughout this book?
  5. This is clearly the first book in a set-up series. Will you continue reading? What character are you most interested in reading about next?

Reader’s Advisory

“Project Duchess” is on these Goodreads lists: Romance Heroes and Heroines Over 35! and 2019 Historical Romance.

Find “Project Duchess” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Beach Read” by Emily Henry

Serena’s Review: “Murder at Kensington Palace”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Murder at Kensington Palace” by Andrea Penrose

Publishing Info: Kensington Books/Kensington Publishing Corp, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Though Charlotte Sloane’s secret identity as the controversial satirical cartoonist A.J. Quill is safe with the Earl of Wrexford, she’s ill prepared for the rippling effects sharing the truth about her background has cast over their relationship. She thought a bit of space might improve the situation. But when her cousin is murdered and his twin brother is accused of the gruesome crime, Charlotte immediately turns to Wrexford for help in proving the young man’s innocence. Though she finds the brooding scientist just as enigmatic and intense as ever, their partnership is now marked by an unfamiliar tension that seems to complicate every encounter.

Despite this newfound complexity, Wrexford and Charlotte are determined to track down the real killer. Their investigation leads them on a dangerous chase through Mayfair’s glittering ballrooms and opulent drawing rooms, where gossip and rumors swirl to confuse the facts. Was her cousin murdered over a romantic rivalry . . . or staggering gambling debts? Or could the motive be far darker and involve the clandestine scientific society that claimed both brothers as members? The more Charlotte and Wrexford try to unknot the truth, the more tangled it becomes. But they must solve the case soon, before the killer’s madness seizes another victim…

Previously Reviewed: “Murder on Black Swan Lane” and “Murder at Half Moon Gate”

Review: Once I discover a good audiobook series, I get pretty addicted. It also usually goes that this happens with the historical mystery series I read. Mostly this is because I’ve found I greatly prefer British audiobook narrators (something about the accent seems to elevate even pretty boring books to a more interesting level, let alone the boost they give to already entertaining stories) and these are the narrators often chosen for the historical mysteries I typically enjoy. And while I’m still really enjoying the narrator’s presentation of this book, I did begin to struggle with this story more than the first two in the series.

This time murder falls at Charlotte’s door after she and Wrexford learn of the brutal murder of Charlotte’s cousin, a wealthy and powerful young man. When his twin brother is accused of committing the crime, Charlotte knows he must be innocent and persuades Wrexford to join her quest to find the real murderer. Though the two are still unsure of where they stand with each other, their partnership and devotion to uncovering the truth lead them to pursue all avenues of investigation. And for Charlotte, this may mean uprooting the quiet, anonymous life that she has built for herself and her two young wards.

So, let’s start out with the good stuff. I’m continually impressed by the quality of the mysteries at the heart of these stories. The author sets up several compelling motives and possible culprits as the story goes on. All of the classic stuff: for love, for money, for power. Wrexford and Charlotte each uncover various aspects of each of these possible motives, and it was fun seeing how these stories began to interweave, with characters Wrexford interrogated and received certain clues then wandering across Charlotte’s path, and, because of her different perspective, yielding different and new information.

There were also some rather major changes to Charlotte’s life that were explored in this book. We only got to see the barest hints of these changes in action, but it was fun to see that character’s trajectory travelling along a compelling arch of change. For his part, Wrexford felt a bit more stagnant, with the author more unsure where to take this character beyond the basic premise of who and what he is. I’m hopeful that more can be done to create a story for Wrexford on his own, but we’ll have to see.

However, I did start to have problems with the general layout and progression of the story. In so many ways, it felt like a simple retread of the exact same plot we’ve seen in the first two books. Like I said, the mysteries have all been good on their own and very different (I also want to add that I’ve liked the different areas of science that have been explored and the interesting culture of science in Victorian England at this time), but the actual layout of the plot has been almost exactly the same each time. To an almost comical level! The last half of each book, in particular, follows a very predictable train of events that was fairly tiring to retread once again here.

Also, in a direct contradiction to my concerns over the second book where I worried that the romance had been too rushed, here, the author fell into the exact opposite problem. We have here an example of the classic “characters fail to talk about basic things” trope to develop tension and draw out a romantic progression. It was an equally unsuccessful trope here as it has been almost every other time I’ve encountered it. I was also disappointed to see the romance, too, follow the exact same arch we’ve seen in the previous book, with Wrexford and Sloane suddenly confessing feelings and thoughts while under duress at the conclusion of the mystery.

This was my least favorite book in the series so far. It was far too obvious how much the author seemed to be following a “paint by number” plot format, and the romance swung wildly from one misfire in the previous book to a very different, but equally frustrating, misfire here. I will be continuing with the series, however, as there were enough changes to the basic set-up of the situation (notably, Charlotte’s change in society) that I’m curious to see where the series will go from here. But if the same plot line shows up again, I may have to call it quits.

Rating 7: An all too familiar chain of events really crippled a story that once again had a good mystery at its heart.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder at Kensington Palace” is on these Goodreads lists: Strong Female lead historical and History through Novels: 1000-1899 Western Europe.

Kate’s Review: “The Witch Haven”

Book: “The Witch Haven” by Sasha Peyton Smith

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The Last Magician meets The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy in this thrilling and atmospheric historical fantasy following a young woman who discovers she has magical powers and is thrust into a battle between witches and wizards.

In 1911 New York City, seventeen-year-old Frances Hallowell spends her days as a seamstress, mourning the mysterious death of her brother months prior. Everything changes when she’s attacked and a man ends up dead at her feet—her scissors in his neck, and she can’t explain how they got there.Before she can be condemned as a murderess, two cape-wearing nurses arrive to inform her she is deathly ill and ordered to report to Haxahaven Sanitarium. But Frances finds Haxahaven isn’t a sanitarium at all: it’s a school for witches. Within Haxahaven’s glittering walls, Frances finds the sisterhood she craves, but the headmistress warns Frances that magic is dangerous. Frances has no interest in the small, safe magic of her school, and is instead enchanted by Finn, a boy with magic himself who appears in her dreams and tells her he can teach her all she’s been craving to learn, lessons that may bring her closer to discovering what truly happened to her brother.

Frances’s newfound power attracts the attention of the leader of an ancient order who yearns for magical control of Manhattan. And who will stop at nothing to have Frances by his side. Frances must ultimately choose what matters more, justice for her murdered brother and her growing feelings for Finn, or the safety of her city and fellow witches. What price would she pay for power, and what if the truth is more terrible than she ever imagined?

Review: I am now at that age where if someone asks me what I want for my birthday or the holidays, more often than not I think ‘ah crap’. Given that one of my biggest hobbies is reading, one might think that books are always an option, but more often than not I just use the library, especially since I work for one. But I keep a few in mind, especially for my husband, so this past November when he asked for birthday ideas I told him “The Witch Haven” by Sasha Peyton Smith. I’d seen it bumping around my social media feeds on and off, and on top of that it is not only a mysterious boarding school story, it also has witches! And you know me, I’m always down for some teenage coven shenanigans!

(source)

I should definitely say right away that “The Witch Haven” is more of a YA Urban Historical Fantasy, a genre that isn’t usually my wheelhouse, especially on the blog. But I figured that witches, being one of my faves, was fair-ish game, and while the genre tropes constrained it a bit (for me at least), overall I enjoyed this book. Firstly, I really enjoyed the time and place. We find ourselves in 1911, and in New York City, so the time period is one that I’m not as familiar with books wise. This post Gilded Age, solidly Progressive Era timeframe makes for interesting themes and historical footnotes, and I felt that Smith used these to her advantage. We both address the constraints of women during this time, be it the factory work that many had to endure (and yes, there are references to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire), the Suffrage Movement, and the way that men, even in magical settings, are constantly trying to hold them back and take their power. Sometimes literally. Frances, our protagonist, is whisked away to Haxahaven School because her powers manifested after she was attacked by her boss at the shop she works at as a seamstress, and the mythology of Haxahaven and the way witches are seen and function in historical New York City is unique and entertaining.

I also appreciated that Smith doesn’t look back at every element of this time period as rosy when it comes to progressive ideas, nor does she paint Haxahaven School as a super positive and supportive ‘yasss queen’ institution (though the friendships that Frances makes there are VERY positive and show a supportive and feminist group of women). This is most revealing when it comes to Frances’s roommate and close friend Lena. The girls who attend Haxahaven are plucked from their lives and taken to the school to learn how to control their magic and to become witches who can harness their powers, even if that means sometimes stifling them. For Lena, however, it is not an empowering place, as she is Indigenous, and longs to return to her family and her community. I liked that Smith had Lena in this story for a couple of reasons. The first is that it shows that the feminism of this time period was reserved for white women only, and that women like Lena were ignored or abused because of their race. It also was a way to address the Boarding Schools for Indigenous children in this country during this time period (as Lena was taken from a boarding school to attend Haxahaven), and how it was a tenant of genocide that our government was committing against Natives. I can’t speak to whether Smith did her due diligence when it comes to telling Lena’s story, but I liked that the broader themes of this story were told.

But there were some stumbles along the way in “The Witch Haven”. For one, the pacing feels a little off. It has a lot of fast paced plotting at the beginning, but we get a little bogged down as Frances and her friends make connections with Finn, a young man who is a magic student at a male institution. It ramps up again once we get to the last third of the book, but it slogs a bit as Frances interacts with Finn in hopes of learning some of his magic to find out what happened to her murdered brother William. I think that part of the problem is that I didn’t really care for Frances as a character, so therefore her story and her journey didn’t keep me as interested when we needed that exposition. I think my biggest issue with her is that she is purely defined by her brother’s death and wanting to solve what happened, with little other interesting character traits. I also found her decisions to be unclear, like why she is so suspicious of the people she is living with and learning with, but more than happy to trust Finn and the people he is allied with without any questions. It just felt like her character development was less for her and more to progress the plot.

All that said, the ending is a bit open ended, and my interest was piqued enough by it that should Smith write a sequel I would probably pick it up, just to see what happens next. “The Witch Haven” didn’t quite live up to my hopes, but it was fine for what it was.

Rating 6: Though the pacing is a little off at times and the main character a bit grating, overall “The Witch Haven” has a fun setting that lets witches shine, albeit with complexities of the time period.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch Haven” is included on the Goodreads lists “ATY 2022: Academia or Teacher Impacted”, and “Popsugar 2022 #16: A Book About Witches”.

Find “The Witch Haven” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Murder at Half Moon Gate”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Murder at Half Moon Gate” by Andrea Penrose

Publication Info: Kensington, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: When Lord Wrexford discovers the body of a gifted inventor in a dark London alley, he promptly alerts the watchman and lets the authorities handle the matter. But Wrexford soon finds himself drawn into the murder investigation when the inventor’s widow begs for his assistance, claiming the crime was not a random robbery. It seems her husband’s designs for a revolutionary steam-powered engine went missing the night of his death. The plans could be worth a fortune . . . and very dangerous in the wrong hands.
 
Joining Wrexford in his investigation is Charlotte Sloane, who uses the pseudonym A. J. Quill to publish her scathing political cartoons. Her extensive network of informants is critical for her work, but she doesn’t mind tapping that same web of spies to track down an elusive killer. Each suspect—from ambitious assistants to rich investors, and even the inventor’s widow—is entwined in a maze of secrets and lies that leads Wrexford and Sloane down London’s most perilous stews and darkest alleyways.
 
With danger lurking at every turn, the potent combination of Wrexford’s analytical mind and Sloane’s exacting intuition begins to unravel the twisted motivations behind the inventor’s death. But they are up against a cunning and deadly foe—a killer ready to strike again before they can recover the inventor’s priceless designs . . .

Previously Reviewed: “Murder on Black Swan Lane”

Review: Once I discover a “goody,” my self-control really goes out of the window. This is especially true for good books that likewise have good audiobook versions. I’ve found that audiobook narrator preferences are among the more individualized preferences in readers, and a good or bad narrator can really make or break a book for me. So when I read the first book in this series and discovered that I greatly enjoyed the writing itself, I was excited. When I also realized that the narrator, James Cameron Stewart, was just of the variety that I prefer, I was thrilled. So, buckle in as we likely review this series one after another over the next few months!

After forming an unlikely team to solve one mystery, both Mrs. Sloane and Lord Wrexford doubt their paths will cross in quite the same way again. They’ve maintained their blossoming friendship, but their social circles by no means intersect. That is until Lord Wrexford literally stumbles across the scene of a new crime, and after having his heartstrings (such as they are) tugged on upon by a becoming widow, he finds himself yet again caught up in a mystery. And knowing the value of the unique eye that Charlotte brings to these sorts of crimes, she, too, finds herself caught up once again in murder. But as they circle closer and closer to the truth amidst a complicated web of science, ambition, and greed, the killer also draws closer and closer to them.

Given the way the other murder landed on our two main characters’ tables, I was curious to see how the author was going to get them entangled in another. Not every murder in London can be personally tied to one of the two! But I thought the method here was effective. Nominally, it’s a random murder that Wrexford is only drawn into after being personally petitioned. But as the plot thickens, so, too, do we see how it provides an opportunity to gather more insight into our main characters. Wrexford begins to question how he see those around him, why this particular widow was able to pull on his heartstrings and how this insight reflects on his burgeoning relationship with Charlotte.

For her part, Charlotte is beginning to expand her life outwards, starting with a move to a larger house in a more respectable part of London. This comes with the unique challenge of appropriately drawing on the support systems she has while not compromising her pride in the independent lifestyle she has created for herself and the two boys under her care. Given her unique position, she’s able cross the boundaries between a respectable lady who can call upon the grieving widow and an independent entity who can call upon sources on the streets to turn over the darker underside of London itself. But this balance is becoming precarious, and in this story, we see the costs that Charlotte bears trying to maintain both sides of things.

The mystery itself was intriguing and complicated. I feel like half of the books one reads about this time period have some reference to the Luddite protests that were so prevalent in public discourse. But I liked the way this book tackled the topic while also delving into other modern aspects of business that we take for granted now but that were relatively new at the time. And even with all of these factors at play, the murder itself was still grounded in human emotions and motivations that get to the core of individuals.

My only quibble comes with the relationship between Wrexford and Sloane. In the first book, they meet each other and form a tenuous working relationship that slowly blooms into a sort of friendship. Here, we begin to see that friendship tested with hard truths being spoken and levels of trust explored. But then it felt like the end of the book took a hard dive in a particular direction. The direction itself is unsurprising (I mean, I barely think it’s a spoiler at this point to see where this is going…), but I found the sudden jump in both characters to begin to see/admit to other aspects of the relationship so quickly felt a bit out of left field. It also leaves me wondering where the story will go from here. Honestly, I had this particular storyline pegged out as taking place over several more books before coming to a head, so I’m not as sure now how the author has it plotted out.

But other than that small point, I really enjoyed this book. The author has perfectly nailed the language and feel of this time period in London, and her two main characters are both complicated and layered. I’m hopeful that she hasn’t played too many of her cards too early, but either way, I’m excited to find out in the next book!

Rating 8: An intriguing mystery centered around two increasingly compelling main characters! Count me in for the next one!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder at Half Moon Gate” is on these Goodreads lists: Regency and Victorian Mysteries and History through Novels: 1000-1899 Western Europe.

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