Title: Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
Published by Atria Books
Published: February 4, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
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.
Title: The Widow of Pale Harbor by Hester Fox
Published by Graydon House
Published: September 17th 2019
Genres: Fiction, Romance
The Widow of Pale Harbor
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.
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.
Title: Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession by Rachel Monroe
Published by Scribner
Published: August 20th 2019
Genres: Cultural Studies
A provocative and original investigation of our cultural fascination with crime, linking four archetypes—Detective, Victim, Attorney, Killer—to four true stories about women driven by obsession.
In this illuminating exploration of women, violence, and obsession, Rachel Monroe interrogates the appeal of true crime through four narratives of fixation. In the 1940s, a bored heiress began creating dollhouse crime scenes depicting murders, suicides, and accidental deaths. Known as the “Mother of Forensic Science,” she revolutionized the field of what was then called legal medicine. In the aftermath of the Manson Family murders, a young woman moved into Sharon Tate’s guesthouse and, over the next two decades, entwined herself with the Tate family. In the mid-nineties, a landscape architect in Brooklyn fell in love with a convicted murderer, the supposed ringleader of the West Memphis Three, through an intense series of letters. After they married, she devoted her life to getting him freed from death row. And in 2015, a teenager deeply involved in the online fandom for the Columbine killers planned a mass shooting of her own.
Each woman, Monroe argues, represents and identifies with a particular archetype that provides an entryway into true crime. Through these four cases, she traces the history of American crime through the growth of forensic science, the evolving role of victims, the Satanic Panic, the rise of online detectives, and the long shadow of the Columbine shooting. In a combination of personal narrative, reportage, and a sociological examination of violence and media in the twentieth and twenty-first century, Savage Appetites scrupulously explores empathy, justice, and the persistent appeal of violence.
Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites
explores the cultural phenomenon of true crime and how women tend to be drawn to the “genre” even though women are more likely to be victims in true crime “stories.” This was an examination of our society’s fascination with true crime and how that fascination has grown over the years through four case studies. In Savage Appetites
, Monroe takes those fascinations of women with true crime and separates them into four general archetypes – detective, victim, attorney, killer.
Through each of these archetypes, Monroe combines thorough research with her own anecdotes to explore what exactly it is that makes true crime so fascinating not only for women but for all of us. While her writing flowed easily and I enjoyed learning what she tied in with her archetypes, I felt that it all fell flat because some of the attitudes were a little negatively skewed toward the women featured in the archetypes. It’s uncomfortable to read unnecessary criticism against women in a book about women, but because I’m not well-read in true crime, maybe that’s something delved into a little more? I’m not sure. For me, when someone is offering cultural insight and criticism, I do want there to be more about what we as a society could do to be better or how it ultimately affects our society to be so interested in an ultimately violent “genre.” What happens when true crime begins being viewed as fiction rather than something that happened to real people? Do we become more desensitized to the violence because we’re beginning to assume it’s fiction and therefore can’t happen to us?
Even though true crime has certainly morphed into a genre, I was hoping for more in Savage Appetites about the implications of calling true crime a genre and ultimately why we’re becoming more and more fascinated with true crime. One more chapter tying the four archetypes together and exploring a result or conclusion would have made me like this a little bit more!
Thank you to Scribner for sending me a complimentary copy to review. All opinions are my own.
Title: Three Flames by Alan Lightman
Published by Counterpoint LLC
Published: September 3rd 2019
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.
Title: Love at First Like by Hannah Orenstein
Published by Atria Books
Published: August 6th 2019
Eliza Roth and her sister Sophie co-own a jewelry shop in Brooklyn. One night, after learning of an ex’s engagement, Eliza accidentally posts a photo of herself wearing a diamond ring on that finger to her Instagram account beloved by 100,000 followers. Sales skyrocket, press rolls in, and Eliza learns that her personal life is good for business. So she has a choice: continue the ruse or clear up the misunderstanding. With mounting financial pressure, Eliza sets off to find a fake fiancé.
Fellow entrepreneur Blake seems like the perfect match on paper. And in real life he shows promise, too. He would be perfect, if only Eliza didn’t feel also drawn to someone else. But Blake doesn’t know Eliza is “engaged”; Sophie asks Eliza for an impossible sum of money; and Eliza’s lies start to spiral out of control. She can either stay engaged online or fall in love in real life.
Hannah Orenstein’s Love at First Like
is her follow-up novel to one of my favorite reads of last year, Playing With Matches.
In Love at First Like
, Eliza owns a jewelry shop with her sister Sophie in NYC and, after finding out via Instagram that her ex-boyfriend is engaged, accidentally posts a photo of herself wearing a diamond ring on her left hand. Overnight, the post causes a social media stir and brings a lot of attention (and customers!) to her Instagram and her store. With it comes a lot of press and pressure to reveal more information about the ring, herself, and her new fiance. She has two choices – reveal the truth about the sensational post or find someone to be her fiance. When she meets Blake, Eliza feels enough of a connection with him to pursue a relationship with him and hopes his interest is reciprocated enough to actually
be her fiance. However, when Blake finds out the truth, Eliza’s lies force her back to reality and to confront herself.
I’ve read a few reviews on this and noticed that some where really turned off by Eliza’s determination to fulfill her accidental Instagram post and bring success to her business, calling it careless and selfish, but would we say the same thing about a man who does the same? I don’t necessarily think so. I liked Eliza’s determination to see her business succeed and that it did take something like this to show her what she really wanted for her personal and professional life. It takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there personally and professionally, and Eliza did both. Maybe she could have done some things differently, but I think that would have detracted from the lessons learned.
I thought this was cute, enjoyable, and a good examination of modern dating and the questions we ask ourselves when putting ourselves out there. It touches on how we compare ourselves to others on social media, and the reservations we have in revealing our “true” selves, thoughts, and feelings. I also liked seeing some of the characters from Orenstein’s first novel make an appearance as well! I think the only bummer for me in the whole fake dating trope that I like is that I like it when both sides of the relationship are “in” on the fake dating, but it’s a variation on the trope and it works in this novel!
Thank you to Atria for sending me a copy to review! All opinions are my own.