December 17, 2015

Thursday Review: THESE SHALLOW GRAVES by Jennifer Donnelly

Pretty cool cover, except the tagline is kind of uninformative.
Summary: I like me a good period mystery, and I enjoyed Donnelly's award-winning book A Northern Light, so I was excited to find this one in my library's ebook collection. I also tend to be interested in books that engage issues of social class, as this one does, and in a way that makes for an absorbing and page-turning read. These Shallow Graves, though primarily a mystery set in the Victoria era, has plenty of suspense and action, and even a bit of romance, so it has something to offer a wide range of readers, along with really solid storytelling and a plucky heroine.

About our heroine: Narrator Jo Montfort is a member of one of the honorable old New York families. She's wealthy, all but engaged to her equally wealthy friend Bram Aldrich, and wants for nothing…except maybe to become a newspaper reporter like Nellie Bly. Then she finds out her father is dead, allegedly due to an "unfortunate accident" while cleaning his gun. Jo immediately becomes suspicious: her father was nothing if not conscientious and safe with his weaponry. When she overhears a reporter voicing a theory that it was suicide, Jo becomes bound and determined to find out what really happened to her father. In the process, she finds out more than she ever wanted to know about her family's shipping fortune, encounters plenty of danger and dastardly doings (and more dead bodies), and, of course, falls in love with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks.

Peaks: This was a well-crafted mystery. I like stories that keep me guessing, and while I did guess correctly a few times, there are plenty of twists and turns to make things interesting. I also thought there was a vivid cast of characters, especially the narrator, Jo, and her new friends from the seedier side of town. Jo is, as I said, plucky, and too clever and curious to be just another wealthy society wife. Once she sets out on the trail of the mystery, it's easy to stay right there with her as events unfold. There is, of course, the constant threat of discovery by her staid mother and friends or the nosy butler, and this maintains an ongoing tension throughout the book that culminates in a surprising, frightening turn towards the end of the book.

As I mentioned, one of the most interesting parts of this book was its depiction of social class, which ends up being a major theme, as Jo ends up repeatedly slumming it in less savory parts of town and meeting a wide range of new friends who humanize for her the aspects of life that she would normally never encounter in her sheltered existence. That transition from sheltered to (all too) worldly happens in a way that is true to the genre of historical Victorian fiction but still remains plausible, and it's most satisfying when Jo is proactive about it, taking responsibility for her own mistakes and her own personal growth.

Valleys: I wouldn't say the story goes too far beyond existing tropes of this genre, but in my opinion, that's what makes it fun. I can't even call it a guilty pleasure because it's hard to feel guilt for reading a solidly written mystery with three-dimensional characters who don't rely too heavily on Victorian "types" like the wilting flower, ambitious young reporter, or patronizing paternal figure. The book plays off of such tropes rather than duplicating them, which is nice.

Conclusion: I found this one to be a page-turner—I cared about Jo and wanted her to find out the truth about her father's death, and bring the bad guys to justice. And kudos to the author for ultimately not making it a love triangle, which is a refreshing change.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find THESE SHALLOW GRAVES by Jennifer Donnelly at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!


DMS said...

This sounds like an amazing book. I love a good mystery and the cover is awesome! Thanks for sharing. :)

Sarah Stevenson said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting! :) It's a fun one. Kind of like the Stoker and Holmes mysteries but without the supernatural elements.