Book Review: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss

Title: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #3)
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: October 1, 2019
Print length: 448 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mary Jekyll and the Athena Club race to save Alice—and foil a plot to unseat the Queen, in the electrifying conclusion to the trilogy that began with the Nebula Award finalist and Locus Award winner The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

Life’s always an adventure for the Athena Club…especially when one of their own has been kidnapped! After their thrilling European escapades rescuing Lucinda van Helsing, Mary Jekyll and her friends return home to discover that their friend and kitchen maid Alice has vanished— and so has their friend and employer Sherlock Holmes!

As they race to find Alice and bring her home safely, they discover that Alice and Sherlock’s kidnapping are only one small part of a plot that threatens Queen Victoria, and the very future of the British Empire. Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine save their friends—and save the Empire? Find out in the final installment of the fantastic and memorable Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club series.

Now THIS is how you end a trilogy! Author Theodora Goss delivers another rolicking escapade with the brave women of Athena Club, adding even more “monstrous” women to the mix.

For those new to these books, the main characters are all the daughters of famous men — mad scientists and members of the Alchemical Society, who used their own daughters as subjects of their dastardly experiments. Their goal? Biological transmutation. The outcome? Unusual women with strange, hidden talents and gifts, such as Beatrice Rappaccini, who thrives on rain and sunshine and gives off poison with her breath, and Catherine Moreau, transformed from a wild, free puma into a young woman with decidedly sharp teeth and claws.

This found family also includes the two daughters of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, each one representing a different facet of his personae, Justine Frankenstein, Professor Van Helsing’s daughter Lucinda, and a young housemaid named Alice who turns out to have unusual powers of mesmerism.

In this 3rd book, the woman of the Athena Club have just returned from their adventures in Vienna and Budapest (described in book 2, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman) — but there’s no time to rest! Alice and Sherlock Holmes are missing, and there seems to be a terrible plot underway involving evil mesmerists, an Egyptian mummy, and a bunch of powerful, treasonous men who want to overthrow the Queen and purify the British Empire.

Luckily, our band of heroines are on the case, and they go chasing off to Cornwall to rescue their friends, save the Queen, and defeat the bad guys once and for all! It’s all high-spirited fun, with the quips and bickering that the characters seem to love so much.

I thought this was a terrific wrap-up for the trilogy, with heightened adventures and plenty of surprises and adrenaline-rushes. There are perhaps too many characters to keep track of, as the circle of acquaintances grows and grows with each book, but it’s all good fun.

If I had to choose, I’d still say that the first book in the trilogy, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, is really and truly the best, because of the emphasis on the main characters’ origin stories and their creation of a family of their own. But that doesn’t take away from how satisfying the other two books are, or how well all three fit together to create one glorious whole.

If you enjoy sparkling, witty characters in a Victorian setting, with touches of the fantastic and supernatural, then you just must check out the Athena Club books!

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

Title: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #2)
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: July 10, 2018
Print length: 736 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll and the rest of the daughters of literature’s mad scientists embark on a madcap adventure across Europe to rescue another monstrous girl and stop the Alchemical Society’s nefarious plans once and for all.

Mary Jekyll’s life has been peaceful since she helped Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the Whitechapel Murders. Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Mary’s sister Diana Hyde have settled into the Jekyll household in London, and although they sometimes quarrel, the members of the Athena Club get along as well as any five young women with very different personalities. At least they can always rely on Mrs. Poole.

But when Mary receives a telegram that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped, the Athena Club must travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue yet another young woman who has been subjected to horrific experimentation. Where is Lucinda, and what has Professor Van Helsing been doing to his daughter? Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, and Justine reach her in time?

Racing against the clock to save Lucinda from certain doom, the Athena Club embarks on a madcap journey across Europe. From Paris to Vienna to Budapest, Mary and her friends must make new allies, face old enemies, and finally confront the fearsome, secretive Alchemical Society. It’s time for these monstrous gentlewomen to overcome the past and create their own destinies. 

Oh, what fun! One of my most enjoyable reads this past year was The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, book one in the Athena Club trilogy. In it, we met the daughters of famous men — men who conducted monstrous experiments in the name of science, and left behind daughters bearing the scars of their work.

In book #2, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, this found family of heroic women is at it again. They’ve banded together to form a home and a family, finding happiness and belonging that they’ve never had elsewhere. A plea for help from Mary Jekyll’s former governess, Mina Murray, sets the plot in motion. A young woman named Lucinda Van Helsing is missing, and her father, Dr. Van Helsing, is suspected of being in league with the nefarious Society of Alchemists.

This kicks off the Athena Club’s next adventure, as they head to Vienna and then Budapest to rescue Lucinda and reveal the terrible conspiracies at the heart of the Society of Alchemists.

Along the way, there’s travel aboard the Orient Express, a meeting with Irene Adler (of Sherlock Holmes fame), circus performances, a battle with vampires, and a break-in/break-out from an asylum.

Our heroes show the pluck and bravery that make them so special, whether it’s the careful planning of Mary, or Beatrice’s special brand of poison, or Catherine’s claws, or Justine’s strength and moral fiber, they work well together while pursuing the cause of justice and freedom for the victims and survivors of the mad scientists.

I love how author Theodora Goss turns these famous stories on their heads. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may have been published as a novel, but the Athena Club understands that it’s a true story, with Justine Frankenstein as living proof. Count Dracula makes a memorable appearance, but he’s not at all the person you’d expect. Sherlock Holmes is one of Mary’s mentors, but he only appears in the beginning parts of the story — it’s Irene Adler whose wits and abilities get a chance to shine.

My only quibble with European Travels is the length. At 700+ pages, it’s a bit of a daunting reading experience, and since the book itself is divided into two parts, perhaps it would have been better as two separate books. I think I might have enjoyed it more if I’d taken a break in between parts I & II — unfortunately, a little reading fatigue set in, so by the end, I was slightly less engaged, and I think that’s due to the size of the book — because the plot itself is exciting and creative throughout.

That’s really just a minor complaint. This book is definitely worth the time and effort!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how funny the characters can be. Young Diana Hyde is a bratty, brave teen with no manners, and she can be counted on to disrupt any serious moment by acting out in some outrageous fashion or another. Plus, the writing is just so much fun. The story we’re reading is meant to be Catherine Moreau’s novelization of the Athena Club’s adventures — and at regular intervals, her narrative is interrupted by the other characters adding their own opinions and criticisms of Catherine’s version of events. It’s clever and silly and just so delightful.

As a whole, I loved this book, and I love the series so far. With dynamic, strong, quirky characters and a plot full of intrigue and action, it’s a truly compelling read.

Can’t wait to dive into the third and final book, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl!

Book Review: The River At Night

A high-stakes drama set against the harsh beauty of the Maine wilderness, charting the journey of four friends as they fight to survive the aftermath of a white water rafting accident, The River at Night is a nonstop and unforgettable thriller by a stunning new voice in fiction.

Winifred Allen needs a vacation.

Stifled by a soul-crushing job, devastated by the death of her beloved brother, and lonely after the end of a fifteen-year marriage, Wini is feeling vulnerable. So when her three best friends insist on a high-octane getaway for their annual girls’ trip, she signs on, despite her misgivings.

What starts out as an invigorating hiking and rafting excursion in the remote Allagash Wilderness soon becomes an all-too-real nightmare: A freak accident leaves the women stranded, separating them from their raft and everything they need to survive. When night descends, a fire on the mountainside lures them to a ramshackle camp that appears to be their lifeline. But as Wini and her friends grasp the true intent of their supposed saviors, long buried secrets emerge and lifelong allegiances are put to the test. To survive, Wini must reach beyond the world she knows to harness an inner strength she never knew she possessed.

With intimately observed characters, visceral prose, and pacing as ruthless as the river itself, The River at Night is a dark exploration of creatures—both friend and foe—that you won’t soon forget.

You know when you go to a horror movie, and the main character does really stupid things, and you just want to shout at her (because, let’s face it, horror movies love to make it about a her)… NO! TURN BACK! DON’T OPEN THE DOOR! DON’T GO DOWN THAT CREEPY CORRIDOR!

Well, in the case of The River At Night, it’s more like NO! DO NOT GO OFF INTO THE WOODS TOTALLY UNPREPARED! DO NOT GO INTO A RURAL AREA WHERE THE ONLY PEOPLE AROUND FOR 30 MILES ARE CREEPY, SEXIST HUNTERS! DO NOT PLACE YOUR LIVES IN THE HANDS OF A 20-YEAR-OLD WITH NO BACKUP!

Okay, on the one hand we have a very readable, action-packed story that keeps the adrenaline pumping. On the other hand… STOP MAKING STUPID DECISIONS!

In The River At Night, four women in their mid-thirties decide to follow ringleader Pia’s crazy push to embark on a white-water rafting adventure for their annual get-together, rather than basking on a beach or basically anything at all sane or safe. Instead, they drive nine hours into the Maine wilderness to go rafting on a pristine river with a tour company — really just a father and son — who don’t even have a website, as Wini points out.

I mean really. Who doesn’t have a website?

Anyhoo… the four friends have been getting together for years for their annual escape from their real lives, their meaningless corporate jobs, their unhappy marriages, their stressful obligations. Wini, as our main character, is particularly in need of escape this year after the implosion of her marriage and the suicide of her mentally ill brother.

Pia is the wild one, always in the lead, always pushing the others to take chances and live on the edge — so when she decides they need this life-affirming adventure, the other three fall in line, with some doubts, but ultimately following along. Off they all go to REI to buy their shiny new gear, and then it’s off to the wilds, where they encounter creepy people in a remote general store before arriving at the wilderness lodge from which they’ll start their river adventure.

Their guide is young, sexy, and perhaps has a shady past. No one is 100% comfortable, although Pia insists that everything is fantastic. And then, of course, they hit the river, and pretty quickly all hell breaks loose. Before long, the four women find themselves without a guide, without their gear, completely cut off from the outside world with no means of communication, and with no clue what to do.

And then they encounter the crazy hill folk.

Yikes.

While the book held my attention and kept me turning the pages, certain things just drove me nuts.

First of all, I can’t stand when people place themselves in peril as a growth opportunity. Nope, I’ve never rafted before, so it makes total sense for me to do so on a dangerous river with an unknown guide and no support systems! Slow your roll, sisters.

Second, there are about a thousand warning signs that any rational person might have considered. The roads are creepy. They’re miles past any sign of civilization. Their cell phones don’t work. All the buildings they see along the way are falling apart. The few people they encounter are weird and menacing.

Third, loose ends and/or unexplained bits. If these women are the first to hit this pristine river, then what are all the other people doing at the lodge? Where are they all off to? Did our group of supposedly smart women ask any questions at all about emergency procedures or insurance or any other of about a thousand what ifs? What was up with that kitchen worker at the lodge who seems like she has an agenda with guide Rory but then disappears from the story? What about Rory’s dad? If they had to hike to get to the launching spot because there aren’t passable roads, how did their raft and gear get there? On and on and on.

What really made me bonkers was how these women see themselves and each other. There are repeated references to them being middle-aged. Hello? Middle-aged at age 35? Um, no. Or take this brief description — Wini’s view of one of her friends:

It occurred to me that here was a woman who might not age well, especially in the face. Too many of her emotions already lived there in ever-deepening lines around her eyes and mouth — even at age thirty-seven. But I loved her scrappy toughness; in fact, we all made fun of her for injecting her own Botox […]

I mean, really. Who talks about her friends this way?

Finally, though, the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the crazy hill folk. If this had just been about a group of women, ill-advised and ill-prepared as they were, having to survive alone in the wilderness, it might have worked for me a lot better. I mean, there are even some good passages that convey the fear of all that they face:

Full on darkness, and all its terrors. I suddenly understood cultures that believed in demons and chimeras, werewolves and gollums. With no walls around us, no light or source of warmth, what besides the monstrous makes sense? Every sound was a beast.

So if it were just about surviving a rafting accident, maybe what happens might have sustained an air of believability. Because no matter how dumb the whole enterprise was, it’s conceivable to think that Pia’s strong personality might have been able to convince everyone else to play along against their better judgment. And given that, it could be really exciting or inspiring to see them working together, overcoming obstacles, outsmarting their own circumstances.

But nope. The crazy hill folk, rather than the river and the wilderness, becomes the chief danger. At which point I got muscle strain from how hard I was rolling my eyes. I mean, our heroines end up fleeing the crazy lady with a gun by jumping on a wooden raft and going down a series of waterfalls without any oars… and somehow survive? None of what happens makes a lick of sense. And never mind the continuity bits, such as having a dinner of roasted varmints and then on the next page talking about incessant hunger. And why bother having a character warn about getting sick from drinking the river water if nobody ends up getting sick?

I don’t know. There are definitely exciting moments in this book, but ultimately, the profound personal growth these characters supposedly undergo because of their ordeal feels flat and false. Wini starts bland, and ends bland. I never quite got the friendship between these women, and that didn’t change by the end of the book.

And then there’s the fact that even in the next to last paragraph, as Wini is supposedly being positive, she’s still focusing on her “aging body” and “dull job”. Way to be upbeat, Wini!

So, once again, I find myself rambling on about a book I can’t really recommend. Sure, it’s a fast-paced read and it never lost my attention — but too many pieces make little sense, and the weird plot choices only make it worse. Besides which, for me, a book in which supposedly smart people make decision after decision that’s foolish or illogical — well, no. Clearly, that’s a situation that leaves me fuming, so this just probably wasn’t a good reading choice for me at all.

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The details:

Title: The River At Night
Author: Erica Ferencik
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: January 10, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library

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