These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

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These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Liz Green
Reviewed by Liz Green
Summary: Fast-paced murder mystery set in late Victorian New York
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: May 2016
Publisher: Hot Key Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1471405174

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Jennifer Donnelly wrote one of my all-time favourite books, A Gathering Light, so I was very excited to read her latest novel and see how it compared. Like A Gathering Light, These Shallow Graves is a historical novel with a murder mystery at its heart and a feisty heroine who challenges the standards of the day.

Our heroine, Jo Montfort, is rich, absurdly so, being a member of one of the wealthiest families in late Victorian New York. But her wealth comes at a price: she is set to marry into another prominent New York family, a marriage of convenience to a man she doesn't love. And where many girls of her age accept their fate, Jo is too headstrong, too independent, to give in without a fight. Just as she is battling against her preordained future, her father's tragic death pulls her into a mystery and draws her out of her own life into a world that is brutal, impoverished. And exciting.

As a character, Jo is perfectly likeable (what's not to like about a 17-year-old who sneaks out of her house at night to break into the morgue to collect evidence?), but barely believable. In fact, the characters are rather one-dimensional, slightly clichéd. There's Jo's preppy fiancé, her uptight mother, her devoted uncle and a handful of characters from New York's underbelly: rough, criminal types. The doughty Jo of course makes friends with a couple of these characters as the story progresses and, for good measure, falls in love with a news reporter, Eddie, who himself grew up on the streets (an utterly implausible relationship that is founded on little of substance).

The New York underclass is beautifully depicted in all its misery, and the stark contrast with Jo's gilded cage is breathtaking. Jo is shockingly innocent but, using money she found in her father's diary, quickly learns that anything can be bought if you offer enough. The mystery emerges early on and the plot is strong enough to maintain interest over the book's 480-odd pages. The story hangs together well and the denouement is neat. Overly neat, in fact, with one particularly irritating coincidence that beggared belief, although this didn't affect my overall enjoyment.

The book is certainly a page-turner. It's very readable and its nice short chapters mean you end up reading far later into the night than intended ("Oh, just one more chapter before I go to sleep..."). But where A Gathering Light had sentences to take your breath away, and a set of characters that stay with you long after you've turned out the light, These Shallow Graves fell somewhat short. I found it a bit too readable -- Jennifer Donnelly didn't leave enough to the imagination, she overegged the pudding so that I wasn't so much drawing my own conclusions as being told what conclusions to draw. And there is not enough flesh to the characters; so little, in fact, that I didn't really care what happened to Jo by the end of the novel. And that's a shame, because I know only too well what Jennifer Donnelly's capable of.

Despite these reservations, this is a good read, ideal for a lazy afternoon in the sunshine. I think it's aimed at late teens but works perfectly well as a crossover with adult fiction.

For more historical fiction by the same author, but set in a different country, try Revolution.

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Buy These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly at


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