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 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.
A couple of quick recommendations; I can highly recommend The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune for a cute found-family story, and The Library of the Dead by T.L.Huchu is great fun – a mix of Zimbabwe and Scottish culture & magic, plus finding your place, plus a really freaky library and talking to the dead and a bunch of mystery & danger. I loved it.
I had a DNF, too; I have read half of Nophek Gloss, but the protagonist is SO WHINY! It can’t just be me on that one, right?
Network Effect by Martha Wells
When Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action.
Drastic action it is, then.
I’m not sure if it’s my reading slump (slowly getting better, as evidenced by this post, but still going slow) or the book itself, but I wasn’t quite as into this as I have been with the previous novellas. It’s a good length, and works as a novel; there’s enough plot and action going on to fill it out nicely, and it’s all interspersed with snark, ART being an Asshole, Murderbot having to Interact With People, and a nice dose of Feelings – which is quite sweet. It’s a good, snarky, action-packed read, but I do wonder if the novella format works better? I’m definitely going to pick up the next anyway – Fugitive Telemetry, due out at the end of April!
Anyway, if you haven’t read Murderbot, or have a lot of sympathy for someone that just wants to be left alone to watch their shows and not have humans keep bothering them – then start on All Systems Red. And if you like Murderbot already, then this is an excellent continuation of the series.
Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard
Fire burns bright and has a long memory….
Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.
Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.
Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?
I would have liked this to be longer (a common wail when reading novellas, I’m sure!); it was a beautifully wrapped up story, but… wasn’t enough.
The characters are sweet (or sharp, or naive, or so bound up in duty that they’ve forgotten how to feel) but it didn’t feel like I had long to appreciate Thanh; I would have liked to spend longer inside her head and as she adjusted back into a political role. And, of course, I’d like to know what happens next… it does very much feel like the start of a story, not one that can really be encapsulated into such a short text. But it’s beautiful, and very sweet, and very easily tugs at a whole range of emotions – credit to Aliette’s haunting writing! Worth a read, but I’d like more.
Rosewater by Tade Thompson
Rosewater is a town on the edge. A community formed around the edges of a mysterious alien biodome, its residents comprise the hopeful, the hungry and the helpless – people eager for a glimpse inside the dome or a taste of its rumoured healing powers.
Kaaro is a government agent with a criminal past. He has seen inside the biodome, and doesn’t care to again – but when something begins killing off others like himself, Kaaro must defy his masters to search for an answer, facing his dark history and coming to a realisation about a horrifying future.
I think that, in a book full of interesting and readable things, my absolute favouritest one was a love interest who only occasionally interacts with the protagonist. She’s got her own life. Her own career. Her own secrets. And we don’t hear about most of them!! It’s such a refreshing change to not have a romance that absolutely entangles two people; and for one of the surprises to come at the end, and never get explored. (I mean, there’s plenty else going on so we don’t feel its lack, but it’s so nice.)
The rest of the novel is excellent – a blend of strange and normal, the boredom of having to go to work sitting alongside miracles and mental projections. I loved the sheer normality of everything, woven through with the strangeness that both Rosewater and Kaaro’s talent create; even those with the power to read minds and find anything have to go to work and do the daily grind!
The protagonist, Kaaro, definitely has enough going on to fill the book. The novel alternates between Then and Now, exploring Kaaro’s life, his relationship to the strange dome that Rosewater has grown up around, his current work, his indifference and relationship with his bosses… and as the story goes, we get more and more information as secrets are teased out, and everything slowly becomes more interlinked. The tangle of the ending is excellently done; nothing is clean and simple, nothing is settled, but everything has been pushed onto a new enough path that humanity can keep on trundling along in the day job.
I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the next one, although I’ve been recommended the entire trilogy, as well as just the first one; there are hanging questions, but nothing immediately biting. But it’s an excellent, thoughtful, action- and culture-packed novel with enough science fiction to make us question exactly what humanity is made of.
Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky
[Spoilers for Children of Time – this is the last review in this blog post, so don’t continue reading if you think you might pick that up!]
It has been waiting through the ages. Now it’s time . . .
Thousands of years ago, Earth’s terraforming program took to the stars. On the world they called Nod, scientists discovered alien life – but it was their mission to overwrite it with the memory of Earth. Then humanity’s great empire fell, and the program’s decisions were lost to time.
Aeons later, humanity and its new spider allies detected fragmentary radio signals between the stars. They dispatched an exploration vessel, hoping to find cousins from old Earth.
But those ancient terraformers woke something on Nod better left undisturbed.
And it’s been waiting for them.
I loved Children of Time (that ending!! I had to read the book in stages, but it is so worth it – although don’t pick it up if you don’t like spiders) and this is an excellent sequel. It continues the format of older terraformers interspersed with the slow growth of a new species – in this case, adorable, curious octopodes – and then the result when the search party of Humanity and Portii arrive. Having a similar format to Children of Time works well, with a new cast – particularly with the unique way of thinking and philosophy of the octopodes (my philosophy is “if you’re going to mangle language, go all-out”) – and it’s really fun to see how humanity and the spider civilisation react when they come across the new world. Plus, of course, the danger of Nod… I love the Biblical names, and it’s a really well-woven sense of danger that pervades the book. The ending is a satisfying one, too; it doesn’t seem like there’s anything more planned in this universe, but it’s definitely a very interesting and thought-provoking duo of novels. Definitely recommended.