BOOK REVIEW: Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd

BOOK REVIEW: Things in Jars, by Jess KiddTitle: Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
Published by Atria Books
Published: February 4, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 373
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

In the dark underbelly of Victorian London, a formidable female sleuth is pulled into the macabre world of fanatical anatomists and crooked surgeons while investigating the kidnapping of an extraordinary child in this gothic mystery—perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation.

Bridie Devine—female detective extraordinaire—is confronted with the most baffling puzzle yet: the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, and a peculiar child whose reputed supernatural powers have captured the unwanted attention of collectors trading curiosities in this age of discovery.

Winding her way through the labyrinthine, sooty streets of Victorian London, Bridie won’t rest until she finds the young girl, even if it means unearthing a past that she’d rather keep buried. Luckily, her search is aided by an enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot tall housemaid; a melancholic, tattoo-covered ghost; and an avuncular apothecary. But secrets abound in this foggy underworld where spectacle is king and nothing is quite what it seems.

Blending darkness and light, history and folklore, Things in Jars is a spellbinding Gothic mystery that collapses the boundary between fact and fairy tale to stunning effect and explores what it means to be human in inhumane times.

Here is time held in suspension. Yesterday pickled. Eternity in a jar.

I love a good disturbing, yet still whimsical, historical fiction mystery. Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars is set in the Victorian era, but right away, you notice that something is different. With elements of fairy tales and the obscure, I felt that this world was both familiar and unfamiliar, and I wanted to know more about it. The novel focuses on Bridie Devine, a detective, who is commissioned to find the whereabouts of a strange young girl named Christobel who is not an ordinary child. With the assistance of her extraordinarily tall lady’s maid Cora and a ghost of a prizefighter Ruby, Bridie goes on a trek through the seedy, dirty parts of London to discover the history and whereabouts of Christobel and to discover more about herself.

The narrative shifts back and forth from Bridie’s current time and Bridie’s past interweaving to give us a glimpse of the person she was and how she became the person she is in her present day. Sometimes these narrative shifts can be jarring, but these were seamless, illuminating the current day’s dilemmas and mysteries with the past’s introspection and revelation. The world building was exquisitely described. There were times I felt like I was right there as invisible eyes watching everything unfold. The characters were so fascinating and multifaceted that I wanted to learn more about them in more books, especially Cora. She was such a fantastic character to me at seven feet tall and truly herself. And I was left completely heartbroken at the end with Ruby and his final words to Bridie. I’m not giving anything away, because it’s such a perfect ending for this story, closing off bits and pieces, and opening up the door to more, making me hope for future installments in this world, however they might come along.

If you’re in the mood for a good, dark, entertaining historical mystery, do look into this one. It was one of my favorite reads in January!

Thank you to Atria Books for a gifted ARC! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The English Wife, by Lauren Willig

BOOK REVIEW: The English Wife, by Lauren WilligTitle: The English Wife by Lauren Willig
Published by St. Martin's Press
Published: January 9th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 376
Format: Hardcover, ARC
Source: Purchased, Netgalley
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author, Lauren Willig, comes this scandalous New York Gilded Age novel full of family secrets, affairs, and even murder.

Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil live a charmed life: he’s the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she grew up in a Tudor manor in England, they had a whirlwind romance in London, they have three year old twins on whom they dote, and he’s recreated her family home on the banks of the Hudson and renamed it Illyria. Yes, there are rumors that she’s having an affair with the architect, but rumors are rumors and people will gossip. But then Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest on the night of their Twelfth Night Ball, Annabelle goes missing, presumed drowned, and the papers go mad. Bay’s sister, Janie, forms an unlikely alliance with a reporter to uncover the truth, convinced that Bay would never have killed his wife, that it must be a third party, but the more she learns about her brother and his wife, the more everything she thought she knew about them starts to unravel. Who were her brother and his wife, really? And why did her brother die with the name George on his lips?

I was looking through my Netgalley queue deciding on my next read, and Lauren Willig’s The English Wife caught my eye. It was one of those I started reading a long time ago, set it aside for whatever reason, and ended up purchasing a copy of the book for myself because look at that cover? It’s gorgeous. So with it being October and with me being in the mood for some historical fiction, I decided to pick this up again. This took a little bit of time to get into, but by the time I got through the first quarter of the book, I was hooked and I needed to know how the story got to its end. There’s nothing entirely new about the plot or the types of characters and once I was clued into a certain character’s behaviors, I did begin to put together the pieces of the narrative and very nearly guess whodunit, and that’s completely fine. It felt both familiar and new, I was entertained, and I loved the insights to and development of each of the four main characters.

One of the things I loved the most about The English Wife was the Gilded Age setting. I’m such a sucker for it, especially when it’s done well, and this novel felt incredibly atmospheric in just the right ways. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Willig before, but this certainly makes me want to go back and see what I’ve missed! After being in a reading slump for a while, Willig’s novel was exactly what I needed. Something a little familiar, something a little new, something that reminded me how fun reading could be. I absolutely devoured this within a twenty-four hour period, and it felt like it had been a while since a book was able to captivate me like that from the get-go.

This was a perfect mid-October read, and I’m glad I finally picked it up. If you like historical fiction with a heavier lean on romance, do look into this!

Thank you to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for the digital galley! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Widow of Pale Harbor, by Hester Fox

BOOK REVIEW: The Widow of Pale Harbor, by Hester FoxTitle: The Widow of Pale Harbor by Hester Fox
Published by Graydon House
Published: September 17th 2019
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pages: 352
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

Maine, 1846. Gabriel Stone is desperate to escape the ghosts that haunt him in Massachusetts after his wife's death, so he moves to Pale Harbor, Maine, where there is a vacancy for a new minister. Gabriel and his late wife had always dreamed of building their own church, and Pale Harbor is the perfect opportunity.

But not all is as it seems in the sleepy town of Pale Harbor. Strange, unsettling things have been happening, and the townspeople know that only one person can be responsible: Sophronia Carver, a widow who lives with a spinster maid in the decaying Castle Carver on the edge of town. Sophronia is a recluse, rumored to be a witch who killed her husband.

When Gabriel meets her, he knows the charming, beautiful woman cannot be guilty of anything. Together, Gabriel and Sophronia realize that the mysterious events have one thing in common: they all contain an element from the wildly popular stories of Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. And when the events escalate to murder, Gabriel and Sophronia must find the real killer, before it's too late for them both.

The Widow of Pale Harbor is an atmospheric historical romance with ties to Edgar Allan Poe’s writing that kept me gripped from beginning to end. Sophronia Carver lives in Pale Harbor, Main, and must come to terms with accusations of witchcraft, murder, and unsettling incidents that keep happening to her and to her immediate surroundings. Gabriel Stone arrives to the sleep coastal town to fill the vacant minister’s position, but from what in his past is he running?

As the incidents begin to escalate, Sophronia and Gabriel realize that these incidents are the work of a twisted individual. Once they realize that the incidents are inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe, they must discover who is behind it all or risk being the next victims of a gruesome attack. In the midst of all of this, Sophronia and Gabriel realize that their attraction toward each other is undeniable, but parts of their respective pasts are holding them back. Gabriel accepted the position in Pale Harbor as a testament to his dead wife, even though he has little care for Transcendentalism or preaching in general. Sophronia must reconcile her past, the accusations of murder thrown toward her, and her limited freedoms before opening up her heart to someone else.

I love the Gothic as a genre. It’s claustrophobic, evoking a sense of dread and wonder at the same time, and delightfully creepy. I love the visuals of a woman scorned in some way standing on a moor overlooking her estate in contemplation, and The Widow of Pale Harbor satisfies every one of those want and hopes I had when I learned about Hester Fox’s second novel. This is a worthy sophomore work, and it’s definitely one to check out if you’re interested in Gothic-style fiction, mysteries, and Transcendental America. Fox wove all of this into a compelling and complex narrative with all sorts of delightful and macabre twists, and it’s one of my favorite reads of the year.

Thank you to Graydon House/Harlequin for sending me an advance reader’s copy to include in a promotional book tour! All opinions are my own.

Little List of Reviews #8

Welcome to another little list of reviews! I have a little backlog of reviews that I’ve been wanting to post, mostly for me since these are ones that I bought myself (and one free arc from my old job). They’ve been sitting as empty drafts since like… May, maybe, and it’s time to get those written and move on so I can write about other things!

Little List of Reviews #8Title: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
Series: The Invisible Library #1
Published by Roc
Published: June 14th 2016
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 341
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Collecting books can be a dangerous prospect in this fun, time-traveling, fantasy adventure from a spectacular debut author. One thing any Librarian will tell you: the truth is much stranger than fiction...   Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities. Most recently, she and her enigmatic assistant Kai have been sent to an alternative London. Their mission: Retrieve a particularly dangerous book. The problem: By the time they arrive, it's already been stolen.   London's underground factions are prepared to fight to the death to find the tome before Irene and Kai do, a problem compounded by the fact that this world is chaos-infested—the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic to run rampant. To make matters worse, Kai is hiding something—secrets that could be just as volatile as the chaos-filled world itself.   Now Irene is caught in a puzzling web of deadly danger, conflicting clues, and sinister secret societies. And failure is not an option—because it isn’t just Irene’s reputation at stake, it’s the nature of reality itself...

FEATURING BONUS MATERIAL: including an interview with the author, a legend from the Library, and more!

Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library is the first in a series of books that involves libraries, special books, and dragon-shifters. I loved the world-building and desperately wanted to become a Librarian while reading it, and this novel serves its purpose as a set-up for everything else because it was a lot more telling and description than it was character-development and depth. That doesn’t deter me from wanting to continue the rest of the series (and I’ve got most of them, as far as I can recall), so I’m looking forward to seeing where the adventure goes next. I’m a little weird about steampunk as a genre because it can get confusing in its setup, depth, and exploration, but I thought Cogman’s delivery and worldbuilding led to in-book plausibility and created a solid foundation.

Little List of Reviews #8Title: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Series: The Crescent Moon Kingdoms #1
Published by DAW
Published: December 31st 2012
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 367
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

From Saladin Ahmed, finalist for the Nebula and Campbell Awards, comes one of the year's most acclaimed debuts: Throne of the Crescent Moon, a fantasy adventure with all the magic of The Arabian Nights

The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, home to djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, are at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. But these killings are only the earliest signs of a plot for the Throne of the Crescent Moon that threatens to turn the great city of Dhamsawaat, and the world itself, into a blood-soaked ruin.

Saladin Ahmed’s The Crescent Moon is one of the most engrossing fantasies I’ve read in a long time. The second I picked it up and started reading it, I fell in love with the atmosphere, the language, and the story. It sank deep into my soul, and I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. I felt like I was right there in that world, standing just off to the side as everything unfolded. It features a ghul hunter, a magnificent shapeshifter, and a holy warrior dervish, and each of these characters felt so refreshing and real that I forgot sometimes that this was pure fiction and not based off of something that had once happened once upon a time. But perhaps it did… If you’re looking for something incredible and breathtaking, pick this one up. I do hope one day he’ll continue on with the series, but this also functions as a completely perfect standalone.

Little List of Reviews #8Title: Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Published: May 7th 2019
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 350
Format: ARC
Source: Work
Goodreads

alternate cover for this ISBN can be found here

The universe began as an enormous breath being held.

From the acclaimed author of Stories of Your Life and Others — the basis for the Academy Award-nominated film Arrival — comes a ground-breaking new collection of short fiction: nine stunningly original, provocative, and poignant stories. These are tales that tackle some of humanity's oldest questions along with new quandaries only Ted Chiang could imagine.

In "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", a portal through time forces a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad to grapple with past mistakes and second chances. In "Exhalation", an alien scientist makes a shocking discovery with ramifications that are literally universal. In "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom" the ability to glimpse into alternate universes necessitates a radically new examination of the concepts of choice and free will.

Including stories being published for the first time as well as some of his rare and classic uncollected work, Exhalation is Ted Chiang at his best: profound, sympathetic — revelatory.

Contents:- The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate (2007)- Exhalation (2008)- What's Expected of Us (2005)- The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010)- Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny (2011)- The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling (2013)- The Great Silence (2015)- Omphalos (2018)- Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom (2018)

I can’t sing enough praises about Ted Chiang’s writing. He’s one of my all time favorites, and I was so excited to see his newest collection of stories on the arc shelf at my old job. These are mostly reprints, I believe, but each one is fantastic. There are very few writers who can like… make me straight up cry with the magic, scope, and depth of their writing, but this is a collection you’ll not want to miss.

BOOK REVIEW: Three Flames, by Alan Lightman

BOOK REVIEW: Three Flames, by Alan LightmanTitle: Three Flames by Alan Lightman
Published by Counterpoint LLC
Published: September 3rd 2019
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 205
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

From the international bestselling author of Einstein’s Dreams comes a deeply compelling story about the lives of a Cambodian family—set between 1973, just before the Cambodian Genocide by the Khmer Rouge—to 2015.

The stories of one Cambodian family are intricately braided together in Alan Lightman’s haunting Three Flames, his first work of fiction in six years.

Three Flames portrays the struggles of a Cambodian farming family against the extreme patriarchal attitudes of their society and the cruel and dictatorial father, set against a rural community that is slowly being exposed to the modern world and its values. A mother must fight against memories of her father’s death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and her powerful desire for revenge. A daughter is married off at sixteen to a wandering husband and his domineering aunt; another daughter is sent to the city to work in the factories to settle her father’s gambling debt. A son dreams of marrying the most beautiful girl of the village and escaping the life of a farmer. And the youngest daughter bravely challenges her father so she can stay in school and strive for a better future.

A vivid story of revenge and forgiveness, of a culture smothering the dreams of freedom, and of tradition against courage, Three Flames grows directly from Lightman’s work as the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance a new generation of female leaders in Cambodia and all of Southeast Asia.

Alan Lightman’s Three Flames follows the story of a Cambodian family throughout the years told through interwoven chapters from each family member’s point of view. I love family stories that are told throughout the decades, illuminating the secret pains and joys each member of the family harbors. Even though it’s a short book, I found myself thoroughly engaged and involved with the story, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s easy to read in a single sitting or two, and the lives of the characters and the struggles they faced will stick with you and make you think as they did for me.

Three Flames explores the costs and consequences of living in a deeply patriarchal society and the affects that has on both men and women and the roles each are expected to perform. It’s difficult sometimes to reconcile that some of this story is set in the last decade because I, as a white woman living in America, am incredibly privileged and have many more freedoms than the women have in Cambodia today. Lightman’s work and passion with his foundation to assist women in Cambodia shines in this novel, giving a voice to people that many may not have heard about or thought of without having read this. It’s a reminder to us all that oppression against women and others thought of as “lesser” still exists to such extremes (and what we might call outdated ways) today.

Lightman’s use of language and theme is precise, rich, compassionate, and fitting for a novel that delves into difficult realities. It’s well worth looking into, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished it.

Many thanks to Counterpoint LLC for sending me a complimentary copy to review! All opinions are my own.