Review: The House at Baker Street by Michelle Birkby

Review: The House at Baker Street by Michelle BirkbyThe House at Baker Street (A Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson Investigation #1) by Michelle Birkby
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Mrs. Hudson and Mary Watson #1
Pages: 368
Published by Harper Perennial on October 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBook Depository
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When Sherlock Holmes turns away the case of persecuted Laura Shirley, Mrs Hudson, the landlady of Baker Street, and Mary Watson resolve to take on the investigation themselves. From the kitchen of Baker Street, the two women begin their enquiries and enlist the assistance of the Baker Street Irregulars and the infamous Irene Adler.A trail of clues leads them to the darkest corners of Whitechapel, where the feared Ripper supposedly still stalks. They discover Laura Shirley is not the only woman at risk and it rapidly becomes apparent that the lives of many other women are in danger too.As they put together the pieces of an increasingly complicated puzzle, the investigation becomes bigger than either of them could ever have imagined. Can Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson solve the case or are they just pawns in a much larger game?It is time for Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson to emerge from the shadows and stand in the spotlight. Readers will discover they are resourceful, intelligent and fearless women, with a determination to help those in need . . .

My Review:

This is not the first re-imagining of the life of Sherlock Holmes’ imperturbable housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, to emerge in recent years, but it is the one that tears the fabric of its canon the least. (The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King posits a much, much different life for the Great Detective’s landlady!)

Instead, like Carole Nelson Douglas’ series featuring Irene Adler as the protagonist, The House at Baker Street show the world of 221b through the eyes of its female inhabitants and habitués as they take up a case that Holmes rejects. And they carry it off with aplomb, if not without more than their fair share of danger and intrigue.

Just like Holmes himself, Martha Hudson also has the assistance of her very own Watson. Mrs. Hudson is aided and abetted by Mrs. Watson – the former Mary Morstan that was. In addition to calling on the aid of many of Holmes’ own allies, including the ever-present and ever-helpful Irregulars.

And when Hudson and Watson find themselves in need of an expert housebreaker, they turn to Holmes’ very own nemesis, Irene Adler herself.

The case in The House at Baker Street feels very much like something that Holmes would reject out of hand – and one where the female Hudson and Watson would understand the circumstances so much more intimately than the male detectives.

At a time when an unsullied reputation was a woman’s most precious possession, a whisper campaign of tireless malignity filled with descriptions of unspeakable acts could bring down the highest of the elite – and could wreck a formerly happy marriage. It could even end a life.

Or two. Or ten. Or possibly a hundred.

But whisper campaigns are insidious, and women, even more so then than now, we’re not supposed to even think of the things that were being hinted at. Never accused, because an accusation requires proof. But whispered about in an undertone in a crowded ballroom, or a smoky club room. And, as always, it is impossible to prove a negative. How does one prove that one hasn’t ever done something, especially when no one will directly speak of it?

Laura Shirley is a victim of just such a campaign. Holmes rejects her incoherent plea for help, both impatient with her frightened mannerisms and certain that she must be lying about something relevant. He’s certain that there’s no smoke without at least a little fire.

Martha Hudson and Mary Watson know better. Laura Shirley’s fear is real. Whether Hudson and Watson have learned enough of the detective business to solve her case is anyone’s guess – including their own.

But in a fit of daring – or perhaps insanity – they decide to try. And discover that they have inserted themselves into a web much darker than they, or even Sherlock Holmes himself, ever imagined.

Escape Rating A-: This story feels like it fits almost seamlessly into the Holmes canon. It’s not just that the reader can feel the pea-souper fog and almost smell the smells – especially the unsavory ones. It’s that this story feels like something that could have happened under Holmes’ very nose – not because he didn’t notice but because he often does not seem to care what happens to other people. In the stories, and especially in some of the portrayals of Holmes on TV and in the movies, he frequently seems like a fairly selfish bastard.

And a genius, of course. But still, quite often, a bastard who cannot admit that he does, in fact, care about at least some of the people around him. Like Watson. And Mrs. Hudson, and the Irregulars. And even, in an unspecified and undefined way, Irene Adler.

But it is all too easy to seem him dismissing Laura Shirley in irascible impatience. And even today, we are all much too aware that a woman’s testimony about her abuse, because that is what was happening to Laura Shirley, is always discounted, often down to nothing. That men in general and Holmes (and her husband) in particular would write her story off to either hysterical imaginings or a guilty conscience feels like the way of the world. Not just hers, but ours.

That Martha Hudson and Mary Watson take her seriously because they both know better also feels entirely too plausible. But what makes this book is that they choose to do something about it – and in the doing uncover great danger – but also discover that they, every bit as much as Holmes and Watson, rise to the thrill of the chase and the danger of the hunt for evil.

Hudson and Watson, but particularly Mrs. Hudson, jump off the page. The story is told from Martha Hudson’s perspective, and we are with her as she reaches outside of herself and pushes out of her “comfort zone” to face this challenge. We are with her as she stumbles and fumbles and most importantly, learns how to expand herself into this new role that she has taken on. And it is the making of her.

That Hudson and Watson discover in the end that evil, is in fact hunting them makes for the perfect ending – and effectively slots the first case of Hudson and Watson into the greater arc of Holmes and Watson’s long-running battle with the greatest criminal mastermind of their generation.

If you love Sherlock Holmes’ stories, The House at Baker Street is a marvelous addition to your addiction. It certainly was to mine. There is a second book in this series, titled The Women of Baker Street, which I can’t wait to immerse myself in.

Review: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

Review: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. FlynnThe Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, time travel
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Perennial on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Perfect for fans of Jane Austen, this engrossing debut novel offers an unusual twist on the legacy of one of the world's most celebrated and beloved authors: two researchers from the future are sent back in time to meet Jane and recover a suspected unpublished novel.
London, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field in rural England, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. Turned away at a nearby inn, they are forced to travel by coach all night to London. They are not what they seem, but rather colleagues who have come back in time from a technologically advanced future, posing as wealthy West Indies planters—a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team from the future to “go back,” their mission is by far the most audacious: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen herself.
Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common besides the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.
But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the continuous convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile the woman she is with the proper lady nineteenth-century society expects her to be. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history intact and exactly as they found it…however heartbreaking that may prove.
 
 

My Review:

It’s a very big butterfly, and it is impossible to keep it from flapping its wings for an entire year.

The problem with time travel is that it is incredibly difficult to spend any time at all in the past and not change something – possibly even something significant. But that’s the dilemma that faces researchers Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane. Their job, which they have chosen to accept, is to go back to the England of 1815 and quite seriously meddle with the life of Jane Austen – but leave no trace of their meddling.

This is truly an impossible mission. And so it proves. But the story isn’t in what Rachel and Liam change about Jane Austen, it’s what changes about themselves in the process.

Time travel always involves a bit of handwavium. In this case, it’s a scientific process that sends them back to a specific place and time, armed with the knowledge (and the money) that it is hoped are necessary to inveigle their way into Jane Austen’s circle, her life, and wherever she stashed her unpublished manuscript. Oh, and by the way, discover what mysterious ailment killed her.

That last bit is Rachel’s job. In her own time (possibly the late 21st or early 22nd century), Rachel is a doctor. But in 1815, all she can be is Liam’s spinster sister, while he pretends to be the doctor. Lucky for both of them if not for Jane, medicine was not all that far advanced. As a well educated man, with a little bit of coaching from Rachel, Liam can fake it. And he does. While Liam is faking being a well-to-do doctor and man about town, Rachel has the much harder task of pretending to be a woman of the early 19th century, shy, retiring, unambitious and unintelligent. She is not very good at it, and wonders just how smart women managed not to go completely insane.

In spite of many, many roadblocks, both expected and otherwise, Rachel and Liam do manage to accomplish their task. Mostly. Only to discover that it wasn’t quite what they thought it was. And now that they are back in their own time, neither are they.

Escape Rating A-: For anyone who enjoys time travel stories, this one is an absolute treat. It will also remind some readers of Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog. There is a bit of that sense of madcap adventure, but not too much, as well as the difficulty of determining what about the past can be meddled with and what can’t. At the same time, the stakes don’t feel too high, or the situation too dire, as it was in Willis’ Doomsday Book.

In some ways, the task before Rachel and Liam seems like a fool’s errand, or an absolutely impossibly unresolvable conflict. To get close enough to the somewhat reclusive Jane Austen to have access to a document she kept well-hidden without affecting the lives of anyone around her is improbable from the outset. It seems impossible to get that close and not change something, and also not to leave evidence of themselves somewhere in the Austen family correspondence.

It is also beyond imagining to live an entire year of one’s life in the circumstances that Rachel and Liam insert themselves into without their coming out of it changed, whether the world they left behind (ahead?) changes or not. And so it proves. And that’s a big part of what I can’t stop thinking about.

The world is what the world is because of what has happened before we came into it. While we may discover documentation of history that we did not previously know, the moving finger has already writ that history, and the effects of whatever happened have already been built into our world. If there are effects of discovering the formerly hidden information (the recent discovery of Richard III’s body comes to mind) that discovery doesn’t change anything written or believed or assumed about Richard III in the past. Shakespeare still used him as the epitome of evil. Future biographies will be affected, but past ones won’t re-write themselves.

That’s not the case in Rachel and Liam’s world. When the past changes, everything between then and their now re-writes itself. In that world, history is a shared delusion, just like paper money. It is so because we all believe it is so, and not because the piece of paper has an intrinsic value. In their world, history changes and everything adapts around it. That particular aspect reminds me more of The Eyre Affair than time-travel. Change the source and everything that derives from the source shifts to match – no matter how disruptive those shifts might be.

There’s also an attitude that it is possible to change the past and know, more or less, what the effects will be. I end up wondering about that. While there are some cases in their history that seem like there’s nowhere to go but up, how can one be certain? One of the short stories in John Scalzi’s Miniatures deals with this theme, as does Elleander Morning by Jerry Yulsman, a book I read long ago and have never been able to forget.

One part of the story that seems all-too-real and heartbreaking concerns the relationship between Rachel and Liam and the changes wrought both to themselves and to their past by their actions in 1815. We are the sum total of our experiences. The child, and everything that happens to that child, makes the man, or the woman. But they go back in time and experience a year together that does not happen for anyone else. They are both forced to play a part, and of necessity become some of that part in order to survive. At the same time, they are aware, and they are the only people aware, of the nature and the sheer magnitude of the lies that they are living.

But when they come back, the world they return to is not the same. They may be the sum total of their experiences, but the world they return to produced different versions of them than the ones they actually are. How does a person reconcile that? Is it better to remember, or is it better to conform and be, as a consequence, comfortable? And how does one decide which reality to accept, and which to reject?

This is the question that continues to haunt me, long after I closed the final page.