Book Reviews

Review: “These Shallow Graves,” Jennifer Donnelly

September 9, 2015

I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: “These Shallow Graves,” Jennifer DonnellyThese Shallow Gravesby Jennifer Donnelly
Series: Standalone
Published by Hot Key Books on October, 2015
Genres: Historical, Mystery
Pages: 498
Source: Netgalley
Book Depository | Bookworld | Booktopia

Set in gilded age New York, These Shallow Graves follows the story of Josephine Montfort, an American aristocrat.

Jo lives a life of old-money ease. Not much is expected of her other than to look good and marry well. But when her father dies due to an accidental gunshot, the gilding on Jo’s world starts to tarnish.

With the help of a handsome and brash reporter, and a young medical student who moonlights in the city morgue, Jo uncovers the truth behind her father’s death and learns that if you’re going to bury the past, you’d better bury it deep

Initially, the size of this book was absolutely DAUNTING. I had no idea if Jennifer Donnelly was going to become someone the very picky historical reader inside me was going to love. What if I hated it? What if I had to force myself to read almost 500 pages? I WAS SO WRONG. These Shallow Graves was an absolutely enjoyable read from start to finish. With a headstrong, likeable leading lady and a cast of brilliant characters from both high society and the slums of New York, I came for the gilded age and stayed for the mystery.

How did this happen? How did I get here? Jo asked herself. She didn’t want to do this. She wanted to be home. Safe inside her Gramercy Square town house. She wish she’d never met Eddie Gallagher. The Tailor. Madam Esther. Fairy Fay. Most of all, she wished she’d never laid eyes on the man buried below her.”

For me, it’s the ultimate win-or-lose scenario when it comes to historical fiction. I’d like to say I was a huge fan of the genre, but really it all boils down to WHO is writing it for me. Some authors can do historical fiction SO incredibly well (I’m looking at you, Libba Bray) and some… well some can make it incredibly stuffy and boring.

I had my hopes high for These Shallow Graves. Jennifer Donnelly is an author I’ve read and enjoyed before, and I’d heard great things about her other YA historicals, so you can imagine how high my bar was set. I am so glad that I wasn’t let down. These Shallow Graves gave me exactly what I wanted when I go looking for a historical read – a great escape and total immersion into the time period. And hello – we open up the story with our main protagonist DIGGING UP A CORPSE.

We enjoy the journey through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Josephine ‘Jo’ Montfort. Another big factor for me enjoying a historical read is our narrator or protagonist. Thankfully, Jo was a great character who I warmed up to immediately. While she comes from the most upper of crusts in New York City, she has an incredibly warm heart and secretly desires to be an investigative journalist. Her love for writing and finding out the ‘truth’ was a major plot pusher throughout These Shallow Graves, and I admired her steadfast determination.

“The sidewalks were teeming with immigrants, and Jo yearned to know more about them. She’d heard stories: they lived ten to a room, spat on their fruit to clean it, ate pickles for breakfast, and were poor and wretched. But as she watched the people, she wondered if they knew they were wretched. They didn’t act it. They shouted their greetings, Sang their wares. Kissed each other on the cheek.”

Jennifer Donnelly has clearly done her reasearch into the time period – 1890’s New York City. I’ve read a lot of English-based historical, so it was great to see something in the United States. I couldn’t help but be swept up into the descriptions of both the well-to-do areas as well as the slums. Jo trots around New York, a girl on a mission, whether the investigation into her father’s murder requires she be at the wharf, a brothel or a newspaper office.

Hand-in-hand with Jo is Eddie Gallagher, an equally as inquisitive junior reporter with lots of connections. His background is very different from Jo’s, but although they clash on occasion, they manage to teach each other a lot, too. The romance between them isn’t too heavy, although it’s a big motivator for some of Jo’s actions as the book goes on. I wouldn’t call it ‘instalove’, moreso a believable occurance when someone of Jo’s age is exposed to someone like Eddie for the first time after being ‘shut away’ from life for so long.

There’s a cast of brilliant characters such as Oscar, Fairy Fay, Mad Mary and Bram Aldrich. Bram Aldrich’s ‘Grandmama’ was also a hoot to read about. I felt as if I were truly living in Jo’s world as all the characters made themselves known.

What I loved most about These Shallow Graves, however, is that Jennifer Donnelly made me actually ENJOY a murder-mystery based around a SHIPPING COMPANY. Never in my life did I think I’d find it so intriguing, but it truly was. As soon as I’d finish a chapter, I’d want to read another in order to come across the next clue or plot development.

There were a few things that were predictable for me (the master behind the whole plot, for example, and the location of the ship manifests) but there were also things that took me utterly by surprise. I was very eager to learn how the whole plot played out, as well as the roots of the mystery and the identities and roles of everyone involved. Jennifer Donnelly did such a wonderful job of leaving us the perfect trail of breadcrumbs to follow, keeping us entertained the whole way.

“All right. But know this: I’ll never be sorry for what we had, but I will be sorry if I don’t see this story through to the end. I’ll be sorry for the rest of my life.”

The climax of the story was fantastic, too. I often have a problem with endings in books – sometimes they feel over too quickly, not warranting the hunk of the book it came from, or sometimes the solution to the problem was way too ‘easy’. These Shallow Graves, for me, had an ending suitable of a 500-odd page book. It was drawn out and unfolded at a perfect pace, spanning about 60-100 pages rather than 30. I wanted to clap my hands in delight!

As I finished the last page, I realised I was really going to miss Jo as well as the other characters These Shallow Graves introduced me to. The ending was quite bittersweet, really, but uplifting. I couldn’t help but wonder how Jo’s society friends such as Trudy reacted to the conclusion, however.

I want to talk MORE about this book, I really do. I feel as if I have so much to say about it, but I’m unable to construct my thoughts in a way that screams ‘review’. Mostly it’s just an amalgamation of keyboard bashing, shrieks and strokes of the electronic cover I have on my e-reader.

If you are a picky historical reader, like me, I urge you to pick up These Shallow Graves as soon as it comes out next month. For such a weighty book, I sure flew through it.

About Jennifer Donnelly

Jennifer Donnelly grew up in New York State, in Lewis and Westchester counties, and attended the University of Rochester where she majored in English Literature and European History. Jennifer lives in New York's Hudson Valley with her husband, daughter, and three rescue dogs.


  • Reply Kyra @ Blog of a Bookaholic September 12, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    Squee, so glad you loved this! I recently got this to review from Netgalley and your review has made me even more excited to read it! :)
    Kyra @ Blog of a Bookaholic recently posted…The Process of Reading the Last Book in Your Favorite Series (The pain. The feels. THE TORTURE.)My Profile

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