If I remember correctly, this made it onto my radar when I spotted one of the newer books in the series on Smashwords (although the author needs to do a bit of cleanup – Smashwords lists books 2 and 3 on one K.B. Owen page and book 1 on another). The cover intrigued me, I liked the excerpt, and the price wasn't bad.
Miss Concordia Wells is a junior instructor at Hartford Women's College in 1896. The college is going through some bad financial times, so it's not entirely a shock when the bursar is found dead, an apparent suicide. Her death turns out to be just the start of a very hard year, however. The president and lady principal of the college become targets of threatening notes and pranks. Also, Concordia learns that her sister is suffering from a mysterious illness. Concordia's personal life is further complicated by her attraction to Julian Reynolds, who occasionally teaches at the college.
The things I liked most about this book were Owen's writing and the fabulous sense of time and place. There were tons of historical details. Sometimes I felt like Owen was being too obvious about her research, as if she was cramming in every interesting detail she'd learned, but I enjoyed it enough that it mostly didn't matter.
There were two main mysteries: Concordia's sister's illness and the possible misuse of funds at the college. Unfortunately, Owen wasn't always very subtle about dropping hints. For example, when it was mentioned that a door had a tendency to stick, I knew that someone would soon find themselves trapped in the room. I figured out most of the book's “revelations” well before the ending, so I spent a good deal of time waiting to see if there would be any surprise twists (there were, but only a few).
It took ages for Concordia to figure some things out. I realized what was wrong with Mary, her sister, after two very important details were revealed, but Concordia didn't learn the truth until nearly the end of the book. It was frustrating when Owen dragged things out further by not allowing readers in on the conversation that made everything clear to her, especially since there weren't really any additional twists to warrant it.
Some of the details of the primary mystery, the stuff going on at the college, were a surprise to me, but, after a few things were settled, I figured the rest out fairly easily. Again, Concordia took a bit longer than I did to put everything together. That's the main reason why I didn't like this mystery more – I felt like I was constantly waiting for characters to realize the obvious.
I had the same reaction to Concordia's possible romances. She constantly fretted over her attraction to Julian Reynolds, even while he did things that upset her, like being too open about his interest in her after she'd already told him that he needed to stop because it could hurt her reputation. David Bradley, on the other hand, was never anything other than gallant, kind, and easy to talk to, and there were moments when she clearly felt physically attracted to him. Even so, she insisted she only saw him as a friend and continued to tremble over Julian. The two attempts to make David look bad were weak, at best.
Although I felt that the book's mysteries were generally too obvious, and I sometimes had trouble remembering who all of the many characters were, I liked the setting and Owen's writing enough that I might continue with this series. I'd like to see how the college manages to recover from the events of this book, and it'd be nice to see how Concordia's familial and romantic relationships turn out.
- Miss Zukas and the Library Murders (book) by Jo Dereske - I've only actually read Miss Zukas and the Stroke of Death, the third book in the series - like many cozy mystery series, as far as I can tell you can pretty much start wherever you like in the series and follow along just fine. This series stars a librarian heroine, Miss Zukas. Something about Concordia reminded me a lot of Miss Zukas, so, if you like her, you might give this series a try, even though it has a contemporary setting.
- Silent in the Grave (book) by Deanna Raybourn - This is another historical mystery. I added it to this list because it has some plot points in common with Owen's book. There is also some romance. I've written about this book.
- Lessons in Love (e-book) by Charlie Cochrane - A historical mystery set at a university and starring a couple male professors. This one has m/m romance. I read it a while back, but never got around to reviewing it. I remember enjoying it.
- The Beekeeper's Apprentice (book) by Laurie R. King - Another historical mystery starring a woman (well, technically a teenager, at least at the start of the series). There is some romance later on in the series (with Sherlock Holmes, no less!), and parts of the series deal with women's rights. Mary Russell, the heroine, attends a university for part of this first book. I've written a review.