Book Review: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

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Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

This is the first book in the Peter Grant series. I was recommended this series by a friend of mine, who knew I’d been meaning to start The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Note to self: book shopping after talking with friends during a long night at the bar can be dangerous.

Peter Grant is a fresh new constable with the London Metropolitan Police. He seems to be your average constable destined for average desk work until one night, while guarding a crime scene, he has a chat with a ghost. This odd ability brings him to the attention of one Chief Inspector Nightingale, and Grant suddenly finds himself swept into a world where magic is real and very, very dangerous.

I really enjoyed this book. I still haven’t read The Dresden Files (my bookworm friends will understand the unstable sand that is a TBR list), but from what I know of the series, this is built in the same vein. As always, first books always have the awkward getting-to-know-you-and-the-worldscape stage, but Aaronovitch manages to get through that with a minimum of sacrifice for pacing. There is a good amount of action, and quite a few scenes that were genuinely creepy. Add that to the fact that the book is so firmly set in London that you can follow the action on Google Earth (I absolutely did this), and this is vastly entertaining, incredibly realistic fantasy read.

Fans of Jim Butcher, Kevin Hearne, and other urban fantasy series should absolutely check this out. The best part is, since I’m coming onto this series late, I can binge!

 

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Book Review: A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

This is the third book in the Veronica Speedwell series. Naturally there will be spoilers for the first two books in the review below. Don’t forget to check out my reviews of A Curious Beginning and A Perilous Undertaking.

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After the adventures of the past two books, Veronica and Stoker have eased in to a unique sort of friendship. Kept busy cataloguing the vast (and strange) collections of the Earl of Rosemorran, who hopes to turn his family’s collection of oddities into a museum. When a cursed Egyptian expedition, complete with mysterious deaths and disappearances, makes the tabloids, irrepressible Veronica can’t resist getting involved, especially once it becomes clear that Stoker has a dark past with one of the curse’s victims. With scandal threatening to undo her friend, Veronica wades into the breach, determined to prove Stoker’s innocence.

Deana Rayboun continues her comedic-romantic-Victorian-mystery series in fine form. She provides plenty of ribald humor, sexual tension, and a juicy mystery. By this point in the series, we are well beyond the awkward introduction portion, and can simply sit back and enjoy watching the characters bounce off one another. In A Treacherous Curse, we get to see the relationship between Veronica and Stoker deepen and mature (possibly the wrong word choice here) as Stoker’s past comes back to threaten him in the present. Though I’ll confess that it took me a bit to warm up to her, Raybourn has quite a fun, strong character in Veronica Speedwell. Here is a woman who knows what she wants and society be damned. 

Fans of the first two books will enjoy this continuation of the series. Anyone looking for an atypical Victorian mystery series should add this to their TBR.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Boneseeker by Brynn Chapman

Boneseeker by Brynn Chapman 

So Arabella Holmes (daughter of Sherlock) and Henry Watson (son of John) practice forensic anthropology at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. How could I resist?! I love any halfway decent Sherlock story, the Mütter Museum is frankly fascinating, and forensic anthropology is (as the kids say) my jam.  

Now, I didn’t go into this expecting a literary masterpiece. I wanted nothing more than a good time. Unfortunately, the book was simply not for me. The trouble begins when we find out that our leading lady is being targeted by Darwinists for seeking out the remains of a nephilim (Angel offspring, watch the Prophecy movies). There have certainly been plenty of Holmes-supernatural crossovers, but the character (even when dealing with offspring) carries a certain expectation of a scientific approach. Coming in with Holmes’ daughter talking about Angel skeletons is a bit off-putting.

And then, we enter into the angst-ridden “I love him/her but we can never be together” portion of YA fiction almost immediately. While I like angsty romance in single serving portions, cracking that egg open within the first twenty pages is simply more teen angst than I can handle.

So, this book is likely aimed at an audience younger than me. At my advanced age, some of the idiosyncrasites of the YA genre just don’t appeal as much as previously. 

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Shallow Graves by Maureen Boyle

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Shallow Graves: The Hunt for the New Bedford Highway Serial Killer by Maureen Boyle

In 1988, the bodies of women began to turn up along the highways outside of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The town had begun as a whaling hub, then changed its industry over to textiles when whaling began to wane. Frederick Douglass had once been a resident of the town, and Moby Dick was based on whaling ships heading out of town. By the 1980s, however, New Bedford was struggling with that near universal blight: drugs and crime. Many of the victims (eleven in all) were troubled women, drug addicts, prostitutes, or both. The pool of potential suspects was vast, from fishermen to white collar workers to itinerant truckers. Nearly all the victims were found months after their bodies had been dumped, and modern forensic science as we now know it was in its infancy.

This is a mystery that remains an ongoing puzzle to this day. Boyle, one of the reporters who first broke the story in 1988, presents the facts to us in an organized, thorough manner. You can tell that this mystery has remained on her mind and in her heart for thirty years. Boyle generally leaves herself out of the narrative, focusing on the investigators, the victims and their families, the suspects, and the local politics. This is a true crime story written against the backdrop of a town in decline, but trying desperately to reinvent itself amidst its troubles. This should resonate strongly with many of us in this day and age, as the specter of heroin abuse and urban/suburban decay continue to blight many communities in this country.

Fans of true crime will enjoy this strong entry to the genre. Even if you don’t usually gravitate towards crime novels, Boyle’s portrayal of New Bedford in the 1980s is worth reading in and of itself.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

Book Review: Life and Death in the Andes by Kim McQuarrie

Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries by Kim McQuarrie
The Andes mountain range in South America runs down the west coast of the continent. The stories and histories of the place are as varied as the peaks themselves. In Life and Death in the Andes, Kim McQuarrie gives us a travelogue and a history book, a sweeping epic and an intimate portrait. 

From the cities of Columbia to southernmost Chile and Argentina, McQuarrie brings us stories of druglords and mummies, weavers and bandits, natives and revolutionaries. Mixing history seamlessly with his own travels, Life and Death in the Andes gives us a unique perspective of life in the Andes mountains. 

History buffs, world travelers, and the curious will find a lot to like in McQuarrie’s easy conversational style. Anyone who wants to go a bit off the beaten trail will enjoy the stories McQuarrie has to tell us.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley


Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

The first book in the Kat Holloway mystery series introduces us to our heroine; a Victorian-era cook with secrets in her past that leave her teetering on the fine edge of respectability. After starting a new position as cook for a wealthy and influential London family, Kat’s professional life takes a blow when her young assistant is brutally murdered. With the help of her long-time friend (and mysterious the secret-agent type), Daniel McAdam, Kat vows to uncover the truth about what happened to the young woman. As the plot thickens, the scope of the crime continues to grow, until even Queen Victoria placed at risk.

I love a good period mystery. Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mystery Series is a perennial favorite. Seeing the typical Victorian mystery through the eyes of a cook (generally depicted as tyrants or foils) also promised to be interesting and novel. And in general, Death Below Stairs delivered on its 19th century promises. Kat Holloway is intelligent but not perfect, Daniel McAdam is mysterious and reserved, and the supporting cast of characters is eccentric and entertaining.

However, I do have to say that this book doesn’t read like the first in a series. There is a lot of backstory, especially with Kat and McAdam, that is mentioned but not explained. Past events are referenced obliquely and little detail is given. I assume that a lot of this will be fleshed out in future books, so no harm done, but the book feels more like jumping in at book four or five than starting fresh. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I’m glad the author has fleshed out her characters to this extent, but I did have to check multiple times that this was indeed the start of a series. 

Nevertheless, fans of period mysteries, especially Victoeian-era mysteries, will probably enjoy this book a great deal. This a well-crafted mystery, perfect for consuming over the course of a chilly gray afternoon.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

The Irregular Reader’s Top 10 Reads of 2017

With 2018 coming on like a speeding train, it’s time for the nearly obligatory (but still fun) top ten list! With over 150 books under my belt this year, it was very hard to narrow it down. Looking back on my favorite books this past year, I found I went quite often for horror and fantasy–basically any sort of escapism I could find (but can you blame me?). I kept the list focused on books published in 2017, which helped to narrow down the candidates, but also meant that fantastic titles like Rejected Princesses didn’t make the cut. Life is cruel.

Well, without further ado, here are my top ten books of the year (in no particular order. It was hard enough to choose ten, please don’t make me figure out rankings!)

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Kate Moore’s fantastic and intimate portrayal of the young women who worked with radium as dial painters in the early 20th century is heartbreaking and beautiful. Moore takes incredible care with her research and her story, and these women jump right of the page as living, breathing people. These girls could be your sisters, daughters, wives, and Moore does an excellent job of bringing their suffering and perseverance into the light.

Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben

Okay, I am an alumna of the University of Vermont, and lived in the state for years, so I am definitely biased in this regard. However, Bill McKibben has brought us the feel good, small town resistance fable that we didn’t know we needed. McKibben captures the think-local, take-care-of-our-own, live-and-let-live attitude of this small, eccentric state, and the thought of being able to fight the good fight with nothing more than good beer, local produce, and an Olympic biathlon team is just so tempting in this day and age.

The Grip of It by Jac Jemc

I have rediscovered the horror genre this year, thanks in no small part to the oft-touted Nocturnal Reader’s Box.  The Grip of It by Jac Jemc was one of those gems from the box, and it creeped the hell out of me. Jemc brings us an unconventional haunted house tale, told by the alternating (and slowly degrading) narratives of a husband and wife, who move into and old, and odd, house in the suburbs. I loved how the story became more and more fragmented as the book went on, and the line’s between reality and illusion, normality and monstrosity began to blur. This is not a book for someone who wants everything laid out for them, but if you’re seeking a profound sense of unease that lasts beyond the reading, look no further!

A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne

Okay, this book is essentially a 600 page flashback, but the scope of the story,  and the depth of the characters (and the promise of more in future books) cried out for inclusion in my top ten. Kevin Hearne has brought us an old-fashioned fantasy epic, a complete world populated by giants, monsters, and magic that provides a huge sandbox to play around in. There is just so much here, and so much promise. This is world building along the lines of George R.R. Martin or J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

This is the second of Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, continuing the story begun in The Bear and the Nightingale. Arden’s fairytale story, lovingly set against Russian myth and history, make the books delightful to read. Here we find fantasy at its best, both enthralling and moving. We can’t help but cheer Vasya on as she navigates a world of magic and monsters.

Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix

I’ve got to put this one in for the sheer amount of books it managed to add to my TBR. I adored Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstör and My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and grabbed this bad boy right out of the gate. Here, Hendrix’s love of all things cult horror is on display. Prepare yourself for an entertaining and informative romp through creepy kids, murderous beasties, haunted abodes, and demonic possessions galore.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I love Neil deGrasse Tyson’s work. I love how he can take a stupefyingly complex concept and explain it in a way that is understandable for a lay person without being condescending. This is a rare gift in any profession, but as we continue to look further and further into the stars, I can’t help but feel that deGrasse Tyson has come along at the perfect time.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

This is the true story of the Osage murders of Kansas in the 1920s. When oil was discovered under their reservation, the Osage suddenly found themselves the richest people per capita in the country. Then they started to die, mysteriously. Grann tells the story of institutionalized racism, human greed, and murderous intent. This wave of deaths has been all but forgotten in the present day, but is a story that needs to be told.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

This seems to be one of those love it or hate it books, but I loved it. I found this retelling of the Lizzie Borden murders to be lyrical, the dialogue and prose flowing like poetry. Schmidt’s description of the hot, humid summer days surrounding the murders lends the book a sticky, claustrophobic feeling. This a gorgeously rendered Lizzie Borden story.

Gwendy’s Button Box by Richard Chizmar

This lovely little novella takes us back to Stephen Kong’s fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, where all the most terrible things happen. This story focuses on Gwendy, an awkward, overweight girl who comes into possession of a mysterious box with the power to change–or destroy–everything.
It’s always so hard to pick just a few of my favorite reads over a given year. I’ve got a long list of honorable mentions I could go into, like the gruesomely fun Quackery, or the post apocalyptic world building of Lotus Blue, or the laugh out loud satire of Will Save the Galaxy for Food. Maybe next year I’ll have to up my list to a top twenty . . . But that just seems crazy unwieldy.

Book Review: Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn

Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn

In 1983, Jeffery Halcomb instigated a massacre. Living Charles Manson-like among a group of fanatical followers, he convinced eight people to commit suicide, while he murdered a pregnant woman and tore the baby from her womb. The police interrupted his bloody ritual, and now, thirty years later, he still has not said a single word about his crimes. Enter Lucas Graham, struggling true crime writer on the verge of divorce. When a strange letter arrives from Halcomb offering him the interview of a lifetime, he jumps at the chance. There’s only one small catch, Lucas must live in the house where the deaths occurred. Bringing his twelve-year-old daughter Vee along for the ride, Lucas soon discovers that sometimes, the past will not stay buried . . .

I genuinely believe that Ania Ahlborn is one of the great modern horror writers. The Devil Crept In was a phenomenally written creature feature. Within These Walls is probably best described as a haunted house story, and the story showcases Ahlborn’s superb grasp of suspense and creeps-up-your-spine horror. As usual, Ahlborn conceives her protagonists as full-fledged people. There are of course the stereotypical roles of the desperate divorced dad and moody teen, but Ahlborn manages to bring Lucas and Vee to life as more than their simple tropes.

Within These Walls is also wonderful because it is truly, deeply scary without the need to resort to disgusting levels of blood and gore. As I’ve said before, I find the torture-porn style of horror to be lazy and utterly not fun, and I’m so glad to find an author who knows that it takes more than blood and guts to make something scary. I have to say that after reading this book, it is going to be awhile before I feel like walking through my house at night without turning on all the lights.

Fans of the horror genre should definitely check out Ania Ahlborn’s (dead) body of work (heh heh heh). I really feel like she is one of the natural successors to genre legends like Stephen King. Anyone looking to find a good entre into the genre will find Within These Walls to be an example of horror in its tip-top form.

Book Review: A Poison Dark and Drowning by Jessica Cluess

A Poison Dark and Drowning by Jessica Cluess

Spoiler Alert: This is the second book in the Kingdom of Fire Series (you can read my review of the first book, A Shadow Bright and Burning, here). There are definitely going to be spoilers for the first book in this review. 

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So after defeating Korozoth, The Shadow and Fog, Henrietta Howell finds herself more or less (increasingly less) accepted by the sorcerer community. The ward that protected London is gone, Rook is slowly turning into a monster, she’s still of magician stock, she’s not the chosen one, the remaining Ancient Ones continue to devastate the country, and oh yeah, R’hlem the Skinned Man is demanding she be turned over to him. And engraving that demand in the flesh and bones of her countrymen. So, things are not exactly going smoothly.

When Henrietta’s research uncovers a possible way to defeat the Ancient Ones, her fellow sorcerers are hesitant to jump, as it seems magician magic is needed to defeat the monsters. Henrietta must risk herself, her friends, and her country to uncover the secrets of the Ancient Ones and stop their reign of terror.

I really enjoyed the first book on this series. Cluess’ intelligent use of sexism and classism to construct her magical world was cannily done. Her use of lovecraftian imagery against a Jane Eyre background was excellent, and provided some truly creepy imagery.

Poison does neglect the sharp societal insight of the first book, and the shadow-haunted visuals of the previous story are toned down a bit here. The first was atmospheric and gothic, this book lends itself more to adventure. Less a Jane Eyre and more a Jane Austen.

That is not to say that I didn’t like the book. Cluess keeps the plot running at a frenetic pace (I finished the book in a single day). She also has provided her main characters room to grow and mature. Henrietta herself is a fantastic heroine, flawed and idealistic, traumatized and striving. It is easy for characters like this to become so involved in navel gazing that the reader loses interest, but Cluess manages to keep Henrietta in our hearts.

The requisite love triangle is still there (grumble, grumble, grumble), but the dynamics change throughout the book. In the interest of maintaining a spoiler-free review, I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that no one comes out smelling like a rose.

So, if you enjoyed the first book, you’re likely going to enjoy this one as well. Anyone seeking an intelligent YA fantasy series should certainly add this one to their TBR list (but definitely start with the first one).

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: This Side of Murder by Anna Lee Huber

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This Side of Murder by Anna Lee Huber

After the end of World War I, Verity Kent is on her way to a house party celebrating the engagement of one of her late husband’s friends. Normally Verity prefers to be alone in her grief, but a mysterious message arrives, alleging that her husband, who died in battle on the fields of France, was actually a traitor to Great Britain. The letter hints that answers will be found at the party, and so Verity, who worked for the Secret Service during the war, sets off to find out the truth of her husband’s death. Once on isolated Umbersea Island, however, Verity finds that most of the party guests are potential suspects. When several guests are die mysteriously, it seems that someone will go to any lengths to keep the facts secret, and Verity must race against time to uncover the murderer’s identity before she is targeted next.

This was a great little period mystery. Verity Kent is an intelligent, determined, traumatized woman, who despite her losses in the war, is determined to continue to live her own life and defend the reputation of her dead husband. The isolated island provides a nice little “locked room” aspect to the mystery, ensuring that those on the island are unable to get help, and are indeed trapped with a murderer. Huber does a wonderful job with Verity, and the interactions between her characters are top notch. There are the requisite twists, turns, and red herrings, but I have to say that I did not anticipate how the book would end.

Fans of period mysteries, such as the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Windspear, and classical mysteries like Agatha Christie‘s novels should find a lot to love in this new mystery series. Huber has delivered up a classically intriguing story, and a fantastic new heroine.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.