book reviews by Althea

Leave a comment

Manhattan Mayhem: New Crime Stories from Mystery Writers of America

*** The Five Dollar Dress – Mary Higgins Clark
A young woman, looking through her deceased grandmother’s things, makes an unsavory discovery regarding an old crime. It’s not bad, but I expected a bit more. The writing style felt a bit clunky and overly-straightforward (“She did this. Then she did that.”) In addition, the way the eventual ‘discovery’ was presented felt too easy, leaving a detection-loving reader feeling a bit cheated.

** White Rabbit – Julie Hyzy
This one started off playing into one rather-tired trope, and then ‘twisted’ into a different, but equally-tired trope. At Central Park’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ statue, a young woman reading is approached by a pushy and annoying young man who insists on making small talk. But what are the real reasons either of these two are there, on this particular day?

*** The Picture of the Lonely Diner – Lee Child
Brief piece featuring Child’s popular character, Jack Reacher. It’s not bad – it does an especially nice job conjuring up Madison Square Park – but I found the interaction between Reacher and an FBI agent he encounters to be a bit unbelievable (why on earth would she be so forthcoming?) Overall, I think readers who are already familiar with the books in this series would probably appreciate it more.

*** Three Little Words – Nancy Pickard
A doctor tells a young woman that unfortunately, her cancer is terminal, and suggests that she make a ‘bucket list.’ However, just a few days after her diagnosis, the woman is violently murdered. Whodunnit? The story gets a lot of suspects into a limited amount of pages, but I finished it feeling like I’d been ‘led around’ by the author just a bit too much.

*** Damage Control – Thomas H. Cook
A man’s former foster child is found dead of an apparent suicide. The tragic death leads him back to consider the reasons why he kicked her out of his house. Were they justified? The story does a nice job of illustrating how different perspectives on the same facts can lead people to come to very different conclusions.

*** The Day After Victory – Brendan DuBois
WWII has just ended, and a street sweeper cleaning up after the victory parade has a chance encounter with a man waiting on the street – or is it really a chance meeting?

*** Serial Benefactor – Jon L. Breen
An elderly man tells his young granddaughter about an old mystery he’s tried to solve. Back in his day, when he was a Broadway actor, a serial killer was offing some of the more reprehensible characters on the theater scene – and he suspected it was someone he knew. Not bad, but not terribly memorable, either.

**** Trapped! – Ben H. Winters
This is the one I picked up the collection for – after reading Winters’ ‘Last Policeman’ books I was interested in checking out more of his writing.
I was a little surprised to find this is a humorous piece about Broadway theater – but it was quite good. That said, I feel I would’ve enjoyed it even more if I’d ever read or seen Deathtrap! (…)
I suspect that real theatrical insiders would find it even more hilarious.

*** Wall St. Rodeo – Angela Zeman
In an old-timey New York, an unprincipled con man tries to take advantage of a young Irish boy, in hopes of securing a fortune. But things don’t quite work out the way he hopes. A fun and heartwarming little tale.

*** Copycats – N.J. Ayres
Nice period feel to this one… probably the best piece of writing in the book so far. This long story introduces us to a group of young men from the Lower East Side to are deployed in WWII together. Their wartime experiences change them, and afterward, they go in different directions. One becomes a cop… but others take other roads.

*** Red-Headed Stepchild – Margaret Maron
Woe betide those who cut a girl’s hair against her wishes…

** Sutton Death Overtime – Judith Kelman
At a mystery writer’s group attended by an obnoxious journalist, one writer divulges the plot of her next true-crime novel. But why would she ‘give away’ so many details? I felt like the ending was supposed to be an emotional kicker, but it didn’t really work for me.

*** Dizzy & Gillespie – Persia Walker
Conflict between long-time residents and a new neighbor in a dilapidated Harlem townhouse takes an unexpectedly heartbreaking twist. Well-crafted, but very, very sad.

*** Me & Mikey – T. Jefferson Parker
Hard-boiled and no punches pulled. This is a tale of two brothers in a Mafia family. It feels very cinematic (not really like a true ‘insider’s’ perspective), but I think it works pretty well.

*** Evermore – Justin Scott
Time-travelling Edgar Allan Poe and an on-the-lam bank robber pull off a heist together. Silly, but rather funny.

*** Chin Yong-Yun Makes a Shiddach – S.J. Rozan
Heartwarming cozy about a Chinese mom with hidden depths that neither her Private Investigator daughter nor her lawyer son guess at.

** The Baker of Bleecker St. – Jeffery Deaver
Fascist spies on the LES during WWII. I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, and I thought the ‘patriotic’ content came off as sappy rather than inspiring.

Overall – there were some decent stories here, but the collection didn’t live up to my expectations overall. Those expectations were fairly high, considering the ‘Mystery Writers of America’ stamp of approval. In general, I think this is a genre that tends to be more successful in a longer format.

Many thanks to Quirk books and NetGalley for the opportunity to read in exchange for an honest review.


Leave a comment

Black Moon – Kevin Calhoun ***

This is a zombie book.
Ever heard of sleep deprivation turning you into a ‘zombie’? It’s not a metaphor here.

A mysterious plague of sleeplessness has infected us. A few are not (or not yet?) affected, but even the immune are out of luck, because the insomnia doesn’t only degrade the faculties, it causes the sleepless to become filled with violent, killing rage at the sight of a sleeper.

We see this apocalypse through the eyes of a few different characters… Two young men, one of whom notices the creeping insomnia, and hopes to get a jump on survival by stockpiling sleeping pills. A young woman, whose position working at a sleep research lab might give her an advantage. A man who tries to cure his girlfriend through the placebo effect, then spends most of the book chasing after her after she goes missing. Some others…

Calhoun’s writing style and focus on the mundane aspects of his characters’ lives may cause this book to be classified into the ‘literature’ section, but when it comes right down to it, the book is quite firmly in the ‘zombie’ genre. It reminded me a bit of Alden Bell’s ‘The Reapers Are The Angels.’

I very much appreciated and enjoyed most of the book. I felt like the author set up a lot of interesting scenarios, introduced both heartbreak and black humor in an effective way. And then, it ended.

Yep, nothing really wrapped up, open questions left hanging, dangling plotlines everywhere, and a thoroughly inconclusive and abrupt finale. It felt very unsatisfying.

As far as I know, that’s meant to be the end, too… no sequel planned.

Read as this month’s post-apocalyptic book club selection.

Leave a comment

The Peripheral – William Gibson *****

“Eras are conveniences, particularly for those who never experienced them. We carve history from totalities beyond our grasp. Bolt labels on the result. Handles. Then speak of the handles as though they were things in themselves.”

Yes… but I just have to say, speaking of eras… WOO-HOO – William Gibson is back in the era of the definitely-pretty-far-in-the-future! Not that I didn’t wholly love his recent books that were in the right-around-the-corner-future, but I felt like we were catching up… ‘The Peripheral’ leaps ahead, again, with speculation and extrapolation based on today’s technological and social concerns, making the book feel every bit as fresh and timely as ‘Neuromancer’ did in the 80’s.

It also has a purely science-fictional premise: a method of contacting alternate realities has been discovered. The exact mechanics of this are hazy, but once an alternate timeline has been contacted, the two remain locked in parallel. It’s not possible to physically travel between the two – but information can get through. This means that communication is possible – and, with the creation of ‘robot’ bodies, a ‘virtual’ presence can be maintained.

Human nature being what it is, any technology with a potential for abuse probably will be abused.

In a world very much like what our own near-future will probably be like, a group of young adults is caught in a dead-end small-town. The local economy is dependent on illegal drugs. Actual medicines are nearly completely unaffordable for the average person. Veterans of foreign wars are physically and emotionally damaged – and pretty much on their own, with only minimal government benefits. Our protagonist, Flynne (known online as Easy Ice) and her brother occasionally pick up some cash by playing online games for wealthy players’ campaigns. They both assume their latest offer is like previous ones… but it turns out to be something weirder. What they’re told is a ‘game’ is no virtual sci-fi world, but an actual future.

And when Flynne witnesses something while online that some people wish she hadn’t seen, she and her friends find themselves in danger from people whose existence they can’t even have imagined, and up past their necks in bizarre power games in which the fate of their world could be at stake.

“People who couldn’t imagine themselves capable of evil were at a major disadvantage in dealing with people who didn’t need to imagine, because they already were. … It was always a mistake, to believe those people were different, special, infected with something that was inhuman, subhuman, fundamentally other.”

Excellent, excellent book. (As always, from Gibson.) Highly recommended.

Leave a comment

Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie *****

(Imperial Radsch #2)

In Which… Breq is sent to a somewhat-remote part of the Radsch (am I the only one who keeps wanting to pronounce that “Radish”?) Empire. In pursuit of closure regarding a personal matter, Breq encounters Grave Social Injustice, and tries to make things better. Obstacles are Encountered, and Action and Intrigue happen…

If you haven’t already read ‘Ancillary Justice,’ some aspects of the setting might feel a bit bewildering to a new reader. However, the story itself works pretty well on its own – it feels like an ‘episode.’ If you’ve already read the first book, this one might not feel as startlingly original.

However, I wholeheartedly loved it. This is superlative sci-fi adventure that should appeal to both genre purists and more venturesome readers. The ‘feel’ of the writing and the themes of the book are both very similar to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga – I’d very much recommend this to fans of that series.

Leave a comment

Neal Stephenson – Seveneves ****

Interesting, and extremely entertaining book. (Or, should I say – two books, because it really is two totally separate novels.)

The first book is a very much on-trend apocalyptic-event novel. An enigmatic something causes the moon to blow apart into 7 huge chunks. Since Neal Stephenson covered it at the talk I saw him give recently, I’m going to say he doesn’t think it’d be too much of a spoiler to reveal that those seven chunks are soon predicted to keep banging up against each other in orbit until they eventually become a devastating hail of meteorites that are going to transform the Earth into a very, very unpleasant place to be for the foreseeable future.

A great many people decided that the answer to this disaster is SPACE – and a concerted effort is made to get self-sustaining habitats up beyond the Earth’s atmosphere ASAP.

I felt that this part of the book might’ve been very over-optimistic, as far as humanity’s ability to pull together in a common cause. It’s difficult to call a book that portray a disaster of the scope that we eventually see here as ‘optimistic’ in any way – but I still had that feeling.

Amusingly (but weirdly), the main character for two-thirds of the book is Neil DeGrasse Tyson. There’s also a character who strongly resembles Elon Musk (others have said Jeff Bezos), and later on, we get to meet bizarro-world Malala Yousafzai. And… is that possibly Hilary Clinton? I don’t think so, but…

In the detailed technical description of the continuing innovations that people have to come up with to attempt to survive, the book reminded me of a much, much, much, much better-written version of Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian.’ (Seriously, if you were thinking of reading ‘The Martian’ read this instead.) Overall, it reminded me much more strongly of Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Red Mars.’ I liked this book better than Robinson’s as well, but it has a very similar theme, and structure, and similar way of drawing characters, etc. If you like one, you’ll probably like the other.

As I said, though, the last third is a completely different book. Suddenly, we jump to 5,000 years in the future, where we get to see what has become of humanity. There are some interesting extrapolations – but I also think, some oversimplifications. Mixed in with the predictive theorizing there’s an action-oriented plot… which sort-of seems to be here just for the sake of having a plot (another thing that reminded me of Robinson’s Mars-terraforming trilogy, actually.) It’s still entertaining!

Leave a comment

The Physiognomy – Jeffrey Ford ***

Since this book won the World Fantasy Award, I’d wanted to read it for a while. Thanks to NetGalley and Open Road Media for giving me the opportunity.

I see why the book won the award – it gives us a strikingly original and interesting scenario: a fantasy world ruled by an oppressive dictator, who utilizes civil servants to maintain his cruel regime. One of the tools in his arsenal is the faux-‘science’ of physiognomy, where an ‘expert’ uses phrenology and other physical measurements to determine if one is (or will be) guilty of a crime.

Physiognomist Cley is one of these experts. He’s also a thoroughly unsympathetic person – one of the most repulsive protagonists you’re likely to encounter in fiction. He’s willing to lie and be used, has no moral or ethical compass at all, and allows his drug addiction to take him to escalating acts of cruelty and depravity.

Some reviewers have described the story as a tale of Cley’s redemption – but I don’t see it that way at all. Yes, over the course of the story Clay’s position changes – but only because his position literally changes in relation of the locus of power. He’s motivated by resentment, not ethics.

Overall, I can’t say the book was a ‘pleasant’ experience, although it was ‘well-built.’ In feel, it reminded me a bit of Mervyn Peake’s ‘Titus Groan.’ It had that same sort of oppressive, hallucinatory atmosphere.

I’m glad I read the book, but can’t say I’m eager to go and seek out the sequels.

Leave a comment

Church of Marvels – Leslie Parry ****

New York City, the end of the 19th century. A young man cleaning out a privy finds an abandoned baby, and is driven by compassion to save its life – and to try to find out whose it could’ve been.

Meanwhile, Odile, a young woman from a family of Coney Island performers, is dealing with the tragic loss of her mother in a fire that not only killed the woman, but destroyed the family business. Odile would expect her twin sister to be her comfort at this time – but instead, Belle has disappeared, off to Manhattan. Fearing her sister will come to a bad end, Belle sets off to find her.

In a third plot thread, Alphie is imprisoned at the women’s lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Fragmented memories resurface of a mother-in-law’s vicious revenge…

At first, the different points of view feel fractured, unconnected. But each of them is filled with colorful, interesting characters (almost, but not quite to the point of being larger-than-life)… and gradually, the disparate lives of these people are braided together into an intricate knot – with a tightly-crafted mystery and a few wholly unexpected twists and kinks along the way.

I picked this up due to an interest in old New York, and was not disappointed at all. For those who want to find out more about the time period portrayed, I’d recommend Luc Sante’s Low Life (

Many thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion’s solely my own.