I’ve been retreating into the world of comfort reads recently, and it’s been classic crime season! Most of these are ones I’ve read and re-read, but it’s always fun to find a few new things.
First up is Sexton Blake – a cross between James Bond and Sherlock Holmes – that was new to me! There’s over 4 million words and thousands of stories dating from the 1890’s to the 1970’s. Rebellion have done five collections (disclaimer, I got to read them first!) and while some are definitely Of Their Time, they’re a really good a mix of action, heroics, detective and mystery. The first is Sexton Blake & The Great War, but I think my favourite story is in Sexton Blake’s New Order – I can’t remember what it’s called (typical me) but it’s a wonderful heist that gets double- and triple- crossed!
I’ve also gone back to Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. I read quite a few growing up, but I’d forgotten which – so I’ve had to read them again! They are very 1920’s in flavour (although without being too racist! I was impressed) but Wimsey is intelligent, amusing and the mysteries are all brilliantly constructed – I admit that I really enjoy the style of these, so they are nice reads. If you like Miss Marple or Tuppence, or Poirot without the arrogance, you’ll probably get on well with Wimsey. The Nine Tailors was the first one I picked up in this batch, as I remembered it vaguely; it’s a murder mystery with some really interesting characters (and a lot of bell-ringing), and even though I had read it before, I didn’t remember the end, so that made for a good read. Wimsey & his manservant, Bunter, are star of that one, and also of Strong Poison, which is the first novel to introduce Harriet Vane, Wimsey’s will-they-won’t-they romance partner. Gaudy Night focuses on Harriet, with a mystery set in the Oxford colleges, and Busman’s Honeymoon features Wimsey & Harriet trying to solve the mystery of the seemingly unexpected death of a very disliked man… and I think my favourite so far, Murder Must Advertise, is Wimsey going undercover in an advertising agency – it’s full of ridiculously wonderful characters! (I think it was Sayers’ favourite too, as she worked in an advertising agency – and the sheer joy of getting to gently rib everything about it comes through in spades.) There are 15 in the series, I think (at some point it was taken over by Jill Patterson Walsh), and the latest one I’ve picked up is Whose Body? – which is actually the first in the series, but there you go.
Speaking of Miss Marple, I was unexpectedly reminded of her short story Sanctuary, and picked up the collection Miss Marple & Mystery, which is (I think all?) her short stories. Sanctuary is one of them, and as good as I remembered – but it’s a lot of fun to read the little snippets of mystery, and a good book to dip in & out of.
Heading more into modern stories, but still with the classic crime feel; I was recommended the first in Simon Brett’s Mrs Pargeter series, A Nice Class of Corpse. It’s a mystery set in a hotel, filled with Gentlemen (and Women) In Decline – who all have their routine, their likes, their little ways… and then comes Mrs Pargeter, with her own opinions and lots of interesting skills that she learned from her dearly beloved late husband. And when there’s a suspicious death, she’s right in there to investigate… the story was amusing and interesting, and a good whodunnit – very silly, as the recommender said, but you somehow end up picking up the next one! (Which I admit I haven’t yet, but I did get distracted by Wimsey.)
Mrs Pargeter also reminded me of Robert Pimm’s Seven Hotel Stories, and the ever-resourceful Mrs N – I can highly recommend that one, as the stories are great fun and all completely ridiculous. I’ve got my fingers crossed for more of these in the future!
And I’ve also picked up an Imogen Quy Investigates mystery – A Piece of Justice by Jill Paton Walsh. It’s tending towards Morse (although, thankfully, without the insufferable arrogance) and I like the mix of cosiness and intelligence of Imogen! It’s set in Oxford, too, so it’s been amusing to figure out if I know places.
And, in a return to classics, I’ve also been reading some of Arsène Lupin. I hadn’t come across this at all (like Sexton Blake!) and picked up a collection of them, so there’s a wide mix of stories. They’re a fun mix of “this can’t be possible” and “Lupin’s pulled it off again!”, and I was definitely enjoying them until I hit the parody of Herlock Sholmes, at which point… eh. I’m sure it was amusing at the time (and it is quite funny for a bit – poor Watson is a bit of a hard-done-by-hound, so there’s some not-entirely-good-natured ribbing to be had…) but after three stories I’m finding it a little tedious. I may have to skip on to find some more of the derring-do stories!
Gods of Jade & Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
The Jazz Age is in full swing, but it’s passing Casiopea Tun by. She’s too busy scrubbing floors in her wealthy grandfather’s house to do anything more than dream of a life far from her dusty, small town in southern Mexico. A life she could call her own.
This dream is impossible, distant as the stars – until the day Casiopea opens a curious chest in her grandfather’s room and accidentally frees an ancient Mayan god of death. He offers her a deal: if Casiopea helps him recover his throne from his treacherous brother, he will grant her whatever she desires. Success will make her every dream come true, but failure will see her lost, for ever.
In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed only with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey, from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City and deep into the darkness of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld.
Described as “For fans of Katherine Arden, Naomi Novik and Helene Wecker” – definitely agree! It feels like a mix of The Golem & The Djinn crossed with American Gods; it’s a Mexican-inspired road trip, if your idea of a good road trip is alongside a God of Death, picking up chopped-off fingers & odd magic at random points, and bumping into your crass, oblivious cousin at every stop. I love the way that Cassandra’s character develops – and how she goes from accidental rescuer to an actual player, with her confidence growing as she does so.
A beautifully-written and enchanting story with a wonderful dose of magic and culture.
The Galaxy, And The Ground Within by Becky Chambers
When a freak technological failure halts traffic to and from the planet Gora, three strangers are thrown together unexpectedly, with seemingly nothing to do but wait. Pei is a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, torn between her duty to her people, and her duty to herself. Roveg is an exiled artist, with a deeply urgent, and longed for, family appointment to keep. Speaker has never been far from her twin but now must endure the unendurable: separation.
Under the care of Ouloo, an enterprising alien, and Tupo, her occasionally helpful child, the trio are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they might be to one another.
Together they will discover that even in the vastness of space, they’re not alone.
The final, fourth book in the Wayfarers series, which started with A Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet and continued with A Closed And Common Orbit. I didn’t really get into the third book, Record Of A Spaceborn Few, and I admit that I nearly didn’t pick this one up… but I’m so glad that I did!
It’s adorable. It’s got the charm and wonderful characters and odd encounters and thoughtfulness of the first, coupled with the wonderful mix of cultures and tense situations of the second. It’s sprinkled with things that make you think, and reflect, and we get to follow Pei again!! Wheee! Plus a few other odd ends are wrapped up, which is lovely – and some new ones introduced, which is also lovely, because things don’t just get resolved into nice neat bundles.
If you liked the first ones – or you like character-driven fiction where nothing really happens (which is THE POINT, Mister Smart-Ass Critic) – then you will love this one. It can be read as a stand-alone, too, so if you aren’t sure – try it and see!
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission – and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.
Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.
All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.
His crew mates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realises that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.
And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.
Straight off: I loved The Martian (both book and film.) I admit I didn’t get on with Artemis – the setting was pretty cool, but Jax just felt… off, and I put it down after two chapters. And while Project Hail Mary is definitely, thankfully, trending more towards the awesomeness of The Martian, it’s still… well, not as good. It’s a good story, yes. A good read. But… eh.
A friend put into words how I was feeling: “With The Martian, you always felt like he could die at any time. With this, there’s lots of danger, but he’s not in any danger.”
There’s also a butt-load of science info-dumps, and it often feels like they’re in there more for the sheer desire to put a cool science info-dump in than because we actually need to know. Again, The Martian… but he was actually using the science in the course of the work, and using it as a tool. This feels more like science because I MUST EXPLAIN THE SCIENCE.
But it’s a good read. It’s fun, and chaotic, and I really liked the current-problem-then-flashback structure and the way things unfold. It’s a very well-told story, and I really like the unexpected travelling companion that turns up – very cute, if a heap of rock can be described as cute?
In short: worth a read if you like Very Danger Space Mission and scientific info-dumps.
I’ve been playing a game on the Switch called Spiritfarer, which bills itself as “a cozy management game about dying”, and the couple of reviews I’d read (plus a suggestion from someone I follow) suggested it was right up my street.
Let’s start with the good bits. It’s got beautiful graphics, is adorably drawn, and it’s pretty easy to move around/do things. The first quarter of the story – the first four characters – is lovely; you’re led pretty easily through how to play, the base resources you can get, customising your boat, sailing places, all as you do tasks for the characters and make sure they’re comfortable… and when those character arcs are done, you can take them to the Everdoor, and usher them onwards. It hits all the right bittersweet notes, and one of them did make me cry. So for the first couple of hours, it’s a really nice, sweet, find-resources-and-do-quests game.
And then let’s move on to the things that made me repeatedly (over several gaming sessions) swear, want to throw the controller across the room, and finally actually give up on the fucking game.
First; whoever designed the plot/game mechanics apparently never even considered that someone might not do things in the “right” order. I actually had to restart after 5-6 hours gameplay because I got the “wrong” skill, and couldn’t progress; after I’d restarted and got past that same point, I then spent 8-10 hours almost running in circles, because what I needed to do to progress any of my quests was. Not. Fucking. Obvious.
I usually hate looking up answers, but I hit my limit. I accessed walk-throughs. I asked the same questions many other players had asked. I tried to guess and second-guess if I’d missed something. Each time, I did eventually manage to figure out what I’d missed – but when it’s several things, in different areas, and that had happened multiple times… I was done.
Constantly second-guessing a game IS NOT FUN.
Fun is knowing something is up there but not being able to get to it yet, or mashing buttons frantically because you just have to get that jump riiiiight oh fuck, ok, do it again. Fun is exploring and finding new things, new quest lines, and even if you can’t do one or two there’s still plenty that you can follow. Fun is being able to see what you can do and what your aims are, even if you can’t currently do it/don’t want to/feel like chasing comets instead.
Fun is not being led, gently, along a path, and then being pushed off it – and having no idea if you can’t do a thing because you don’t have the skill, or you missed something, or there’s a bug. Fun is not being frustrated enough to have to research every single character you can pick up in the game to figure out which one you should get now, with the (apparently limited) skills, and realising that the answer is “none”… which can’t be right. Fun is not HAVING TO FUCKING RESTART because the devs apparently didn’t even consider that someone might not follow the game with the plot structure they had in their heads, and then have no way to remedy it.
Place that alongside some decisions not to signpost resources or provide any help in-game, and to only signpost some access points and not others (eg. places where you can jump are sometimes obvious… and sometimes very not obvious) and it’s a recipe for a fucking frustrating game. There was one instance with a high ladder, where one iteration of it is relatively easy to jump onto; it just requires the right position/skill. There’s a similar iteration where I must have tried 15-20 times, no luck – so I assumed, not unreasonably, that it required a skill I didn’t have. Apparently what it actually requires is the stars to align and a pink elephant to fly past, and you can climb up this ladder – I have no idea what I did differently to get there, but it was annoying. Times that by about ten different things, and it’s infuriating.
The paragraphs above don’t really convey the sheer annoyance of all of this, but my partner will assure you that I was PISSED OFF. And I would also like to point out that it’s not me being stupid; the decisions were pretty obvious, generally, and the game definitely didn’t point to one being needed before the other, or to where I could find more information – it did really seem like whoever designed this had merrily trundled along, assuming you’d do The Right Thing and just… not thinking about if you, maybe, didn’t or couldn’t do That Thing.
I want to love this game. I want to say it’s sweet, and cute, and fun, and it made me cry (which it did, twice.) I want to say it’s a neat little game about collecting resources and taking your passengers out for dinner and talking to rude passers-by and delivering lemons. I want to say that it’s a thoughtful, gentle story about life and death, and friends making their way into the afterlife, and about how we deal with death and loss and memories, and that it tugs all the right heartstrings.
I want to love it.
But, honestly: it is all of that – it is sweet and lovely and heart-tugging – and that’s not enough to overcome the flaws.
My real takeaway? Don’t buy this. Don’t bother playing. You’ll make the wrong plot decision, or not be able to do something, or choose the wrong action, and frankly – unless you like aimlessly drifting around a map while frantically Google’ing to see what you missed and where you should go next – it’s not worth it.
I has done some reading! Books books books…
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T Kingfisher
Fourteen-year-old Mona isn’t like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can’t control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt’s bakery making gingerbread men dance.
But Mona’s life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona’s city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona’s worries…
This is, quite frankly, adorable. (Even with the slightly homicidal sourdough included.) The story follows Mona as she slowly realises her nice life is getting a bit more dangerous – being a wizard, even one who is only good with bread, is apparently liable to get you mysteriously vanished… and then when a body turns up in the bakery, it makes it a bit more real. Like, the-city-is-in-danger-and-the-adults-aren’t-doing-anything real.
It’s a cute, funny, witty coming-of-age mixed with a mystery, and it’s got a lovely, varied mix of characters. Mona is stubborn and practical, but it’s really interesting to see how she handles everything; and the adults around her are a wonderful slice of characters. The baking monstrosities are brilliant, too, and it’s a delight to see how much baking gets woven into the story. Funny, cute, and a delightful read.
The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
‘My mother used to say I was born reaching, which is true. She also used to say it would get me killed, which it hasn’t. Not yet, anyway.’
Born in the dirt of the wasteland, Cara has fought her entire life just to survive. Now she has done the impossible, and landed herself a comfortable life on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, she’s on a sure path to citizenship and security – on this world, at least.
Of the 380 realities that have been unlocked, Cara is dead in all but 8.
Cara’s parallel selves are exceptionally good at dying – from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun – which makes Cara wary, and valuable. Because while multiverse travel is possible, no one can visit a world in which their counterpart is still alive. And no one has fewer counterparts than Cara.
But then one of her eight doppelgängers dies under mysterious circumstances, and Cara is plunged into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and future in ways she never could have imagined – and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her earth, but the entire multiverse.
I didn’t know what to expect from this one, and it absolutely blew me away. The story follows Cara as she hops from world to parallel world, avoiding meeting people (and then meeting them anyway), downloading data, and then going home to flirt with her unavailable boss and live a life she never thought she had.
But where the first couple of chapters catch you, there’s then a twist. A reveal. And another. And another. And it’s absolutely fantastic – every piece of information adds up, every twist adds another layer, and it all builds so wonderfully on Cara’s character and choices that the pages just turn themselves. Cara’s character, too, is so layered – a woman overcoming an abusive past and trying to find her place between two cultures, but also endlessly thrown into other variations of those cultures; always having to adapt and reach, and always having to keep fighting. And the final twists at the end are brilliant – they tie everything together and round off the story so well.
Absolutely worth a read.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
He is trying to poison me. You must come for me, Noemì. You have to save me.
When glamorous socialite Noemì Taboada receives a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging to be rescued from a mysterious doom, it’s clear something is desperately amiss. Catalina has always had a flair for the dramatic, but her claims that her husband is poisoning her and her visions of restless ghosts seem remarkable, even for her.
Noemì’s more suited to cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing, but she heads immediately to High Place, a remote mansion in the Mexican countryside, determined to discover what is so affecting her cousin. She’s tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who is fascinated by Noemì; and not of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.
Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he wants to help – but he might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemì digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.
And Noemì, mesmerised by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to leave this enigmatic house behind . . .
Did I really forget to review this when I read it?! It was a couple of months back… long story short, I enjoyed it! Horror isn’t usually my thing but I will make an exception for well-written gothics, and this definitely ticked all of the boxes. (I also read another one last year that I will be yelling about whenever it finally comes out…)
The story starts off light, witty, with an undertone of unease – it’s a weird house, weird situation, weird people, and Noemì surfs over it all with ease – until it starts getting under her skin. Weird dreams, weird noises, and more mysteries… The book’s descent into proper gothic horror is fantastically done, and the characters are what make it; creepy, eerie and excellent. Well worth a read.