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: 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: 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. 

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: 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.

Book Review: The Elementals by Michael McDowell

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The Elementals by Michael McDowell

I have to shout a thank you out to the folks at The Nocturnal Reader’s Box, and of course Grady Hendrix and Paperbacks from Hell for introducing me to this author. Nocturnal Reader’s had to post a picture of the very pretty book you see above, and then after reading the blurb, I simply had to read it. Hearing Hendrix sing McDowell’s praises in Paperbacks from Hell cemented my decision.

This book features two wealthy Mobile, Alabama families, the McCrays and the Savages. The two families have been friends for years, and the McCray daughter is married to the surviving Savage son. But the Savages are an old and strange family, and after the traumatic funeral of the Savage matriarch, the two families descend on their shared vacation spot: Beldame. Beldame consists of three identical old Victorian houses on a spit of sand in the Gulf of Mexico. One house traditionally occupied by the McCrays, another by the Savages, and one that is slowly being consumed by the sand dunes. But as the days drag by, it becomes more and more obvious that the abandoned house isn’t so empty. Something is occupying the crumbling building, something evil, something hungry . . .

This is easily one of the best horror books I’ve read in a long time. My biggest regret is that I didn’t read any of McDowell’s books years ago (The Elementals was originally published in 1981). I am very glad that McDowell’s book are starting to garner fresh attention, both through Paperbacks from Hell and Valancourt Books’ gorgeous paperback editions.

The Elementals is delightfully scary without needless gore. I’m not some wilting flower, but I have to say that the recent popularity of “torture porn” style horror simply made the genre gross and not very much fun. There were a couple of places in this book where I was so utterly creeped out that I found myself holding the book as far away as possible, because it was freaking scary but I still needed to find out what happened. This is the reading equivalent of watching a scary movie through your fingers, and it totally works.

Horror buffs who’ve not read McDowell’s books should start now. Right now. McDowell is an incredibly talented writer  who chose to use his gifts for cult horror books, and I think we should all be grateful. Expect a review of Cold Moon Over Babylon, also by McDowell (and one of the books in October’s Nocturnal Reader’s Box), in the near future.

 

Book Review and GIVEAWAY!!! Bloodstains with Brönte by Katherine Bolger Hyde

Bloodstains with Brönte by Katherine Bolger Hyde

Giveaway details are at the end of my review!

Fair warning, this is the second book on the Crimes with the Classics series, so expect spoilers below for the first book. But good news! You can read this book and have fun without reading the previous book. 

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Okay, so this book finds Emily Cavanagh in the midst of renovations to turn the mansion she inherited from her murdered aunt into a writer’s retreat. Unfortunately, Emily’s ward, Katie, seems to have a horrible past with one of the workers, and the other seems to have developed an unhealthy obsession for the young woman. When one of the young men turns up dead at a murder-mystery fundraiser at Emily’s house, Katie becomes the primary suspect. With tensions running high and the dreary winter storms setting in, Emily must uncover the truth if she’s to save her young friend. 

I like a cozy mystery every now and then. A nice bit of fiction to consume in an autumn afternoon. Bloodstains with Brönte fit the bill perfectly. You have a quirky, independent woman pulled unexpectedly into crime solving, a small town with a crazy high murder per capita rate, a great setting in an antique house replete with hidden staircases and dark corners, and colorful local townsfolk to provide a plethora of red herrings for our heroine to follow.

My one complaint is with Emily herself. I expect my detectives to be flawed, and no mystery novel would be complete without pointing the finger at the wrong person once or twice, but midway through the book, Emily completely abandons all logic (it’s actually stated that “He might have reason on his side, but affection trumped reason in her book.”) in the face of Katie’s possible guilt. I’m all for sticking up for friends and family, but I prefer my amateur detectives to be a bit less willing to divorce their investigation from the facts. Fortunately, Emily eventually comes around, and the book continues on in a more satisfying way, but come on.

So cozy mystery lovers and fans of Louise Penny take note. Despite its flaws, this is a fun little tea cake of a mystery series.

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

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Giveaway Details: 

Enter for a chance to win a finished copy of this book! (US only, sorry)

How to Enter:

Like and comment on this post for one entry

You can get bonus entries by following and liking the giveaway post on my Instagram page (@irregularreader) and by following me on Twitter (@readirregular) and retweeting the giveaway post. 

A winner will be randomly selected on December 20th, 2017. The book will be mailed directly from the publisher!

You know you want a free book for the holiday season!

Book Review: Frankenstein Dreams edited by Michael Sims


Frankenstein Dreams edited by Michael Sims

So what did science fiction look like when modern science was still in its infancy? Michael Sims has put together a collection of 19th century short science fiction stories that illustrate not only the breadth and the creativity of the field prior to the turn of the 20th century, but also the creepy prescience of some of the writers (if not for strict scientific fact, then for topics that would remain scifi staples into the current day).

In this collection we find mechanical brides made to order, vicious monsters awaiting daring pilots in the upper levels of the atmosphere, superhuman senses, alternate dimensions, strange aliens, time travel, and apocalyptic plagues and disasters. The stories, which include samples from authors like Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, and Rudyard Kipling, range from chapter excerpts to short stories to stories fashioned so like news items that, War of the Worlds-style, many people accepted them as fact.

My biggest complaint is that for the bigger names in the collection, clearly selected for their name recognition to the larger public, Sims has largely chosen to include only bits of chapters from their most famous works. As someone who looks to these collections to find little known authors or stories, this was a bit frustrating. I would have preferred something a little more off the beaten path. 

Fans of Victorian literature and scifi buffs should check this volume out. In these stories, we can see the seed of inspiration for a number of modern tales.

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

Book Review: The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye: A Pittsburgh Story by Meredith Meyer Grelli

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The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye: A Pittsburgh Story by Meredith Meyer Grelli

I remember when I was first presented with the necessity of moving to Pittsburgh. I was a New England girl born and raised, but the possibility of securing a job in my field (probably a bad idea to major in anthropology) was enough to have me seriously considering the move to (in my New England mindframe) the middle of the country. But  . . . Pittsburgh, I said to myself. I pictured post-apocalyptic visions of smokestack-strewn horizons, coal blackened skies and landscapes, the dirty grime of hundreds of years of industry. The reassuring and vague “It’s not like that anymore” from my then-boyfriend (now husband) did little to instill confidence in our new home.

Then we arrived. And all my misgivings and preconceptions faded away. It was a clear, bright midautumn day, the leaves, though not as brilliant as those I’d left behind, marched in colorful ranks up and over the hills. The gleaming US Steel Tower (the locals refuse to call it anything else, no matter who owns it), the castle-like PPG building and the art deco Gulf building dominated the downtown skyline. Bridges of yellow and blue, constructed solidly from (local) steel and concrete sprouted along the rivers like crepe paper. And the hills . . . we were moving to the neighborhood of Mt. Washington (which is extra hilarious for New Englanders) and it seemed that no surface was too vertical to build on. Houses and shops hung from the side of cliffs, streets marched uphill and turned into staircases when the grade became too steep for cars. At night, the city spread out around us both horizontally and vertically, a sight one might associate more with a Rio de Janeiro than a mid-Atlantic American city.

Pittsburgh is a city rooted in its past. Rail lines, old factories, and other evidence of bygone industry haunt the landscape. But Pittsburgh is also one of the fortunate cities in the “Rust Belt” to largely avoid the economic crash so many other places still face. The natural gas and medical industries employ thousands. Google, Uber, and other world-class companies have headquarters here. The city may see itself as a hardhat-wearing, steelmill-working tough guy, but it is also a self-driving-car test ground, a farm-to-table giant, a craft beer haven, and a foodie paradise. These two disparate parts of Pittsburgh coexist, sometimes cordially, sometimes not, and those who have lived their lives here feel the pressure to decide which path the city will ultimately take.

Wigle Whiskey embodies this dichotomy. Started as a family enterprise in 2011, Wigle sought out Pittsburgh’s deep distilling roots (the city was once the rye whiskey capital of the country, before rye was superseded by Kentucky bourbon) while embracing the city’s future (the craft spirits revolution is proceeding quite similarly to the craft beer revolution a few decades ago). The name evokes Pittsburgh’s very beginnings, named after an actor in the Whiskey Rebellion, where local distillers (violently) protested a federal tax placed on whiskey stills.

The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye (I was bound to get to the book eventually) is a love story both to the city of Pittsburgh and the craft of making spirits.  The book begins with a brief overview of The Whiskey Rebellion (for a more in depth look, you can check out William Hogeland’s The Whisky Rebellion), as well as the history of the Overholt family (Old Overholt Whiskey being one of the oldest whiskeys continuously distilled in the United States). The book then gives us an insight into the current state of craft brewing, and the challenges and niches that make distilling both difficult and rewarding. The book finishes with a number of drink recipes (huzzah!) for the dedicated liquor enthusiast.

Meredith Meyer Grelli, who is one of the founders of Wigle Whiskey, is a person enthusiastically in love with her work and her home city, and this loves shines throughout the book. Anyone who has heard her speak at one of the distillery tours knows the level of enthusiasm she brings to the craft, and she carries that enthusiasm over into the written word. Anybody interested in a quick, readable history of the Pittsburgh region and craft distilling should find this book entertaining and informative. And if you’re in the area, be sure to stop by the distillery for a cocktail, a flight, and a tour. The rich history of this city deserves to be celebrated.

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

Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir


Artemis by Andy Weir

Life isn’t easy on the moon. Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara has lived in Artemis, the only lunar city, since she was six years old. The daughter of a respected welder, poor life choices have led Jazz down a path of near poverty and petty crime. When one of Artemis’ most wealthy citizens offers her a ridiculous amount of money to commit a serious crime, Jazz can’t say no. But getting the job done is only the start of her problems. Big, shadowy players are operating behind the scenes, and this caper could put Artemis itself in grave danger.

I loved Andy Weir’s previous novel, The Martian. Weir’s mix of science, outer space, and sarcastic humor made his modern day Robinson Crusoe story ridiculously fun. Artemis is more of the same, but now Weir had given us a heist novel . . . In Space! 

Jazz Bashara is five and a half feet of sarcastic supergenius, a young woman who blew her considerable potential in poorly-managed teenage rebellion. Using her considerable intellect to skirt along the edges of lawful lunar society, her goal is to get away from the day to day scrape of bottom-rung existence. Bring on the “one last big job” from a ridiculously wealthy client, and the heist begins.

Weir has again based his world in (what seems to my non-sciencey self) wonderfully realistic detail. As the ins and outs of Artemis are explained, we begin to see how the first human settlement on the moon might operate (I’m sure Neil deGrasse Tyson will rip the science apart, but hey). Jazz is a very similar character to The Martian’s Mark Watney, but sarcastic, smart characters really appeal to me, so I don’t mind,

Fans of The Martian or smart science fiction will probably really enjoy this book. We’re heading into new and uncharted territory in real-life space exploration, so I for one want to read all the realistic sci-fi in can get my mitts on.

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