Author: Nicky

Review – The Black Spectacles

Posted December 2, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Black Spectacles

The Black Spectacles

by John Dickson Carr

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 222
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: four-stars

A sinister case of deadly poisoned chocolates from Sodbury Cross’s high street shop haunts the group of friends and relatives assembled at Bellegarde, among the orchards of ‘peach-fancier’ Marcus Chesney. To prove a point about how the sweets could have been poisoned under the nose of the shopkeeper, Chesney stages an elaborate memory game to test whether any of his guests can see beyond their ‘black spectacles’; that is, to see the truth without any assumptions as witnesses.

During the test – which is also being filmed – Chesney is murdered by his supposed accomplice. The keen wits of Dr. Gideon Fell are called for to crack this brazen and bizarre murder committed in full view of an audience.

It’s still funny how I thought I really disliked John Dickson Carr’s writing, and now here I am inhaling his books in a day. The Black Spectacles has quite a bit going on, with the police detective getting deeply emotionally involved with the whole thing and Gideon Fell coming in all sympathy and understanding. He’s rather human for one of the Great Detective types, albeit you never learn much about his personal life or opinions outside of crime.

The crime isn’t the locked-room mystery that Carr specialised in, but it is an “impossible crime” — though I realised quickly what was up with that (a similar device used in a couple of other crime novels that I happen to like). It’s fun to work out what’s going on and why.

There is something rather dark about the motivations and the way a particular character is treated, that left me wanting a little more at the end of the novel — something to set the world properly to rights for her. Maybe an epilogue or something. But the mystery is resolved well.

Rating: 4/5

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted December 2, 2023 by Nicky in General / 22 Comments

Good morning, folks! My weekend away was lovely, but this week I have relatively little going on, and I’m excited to settle down and do some reading and talking about books.

Because Stacking the Shelves is way quieter than it used to be (so I ought to have time for comments elsewhere!), I’ll be linking up with a few different memes each week: Reading Reality’s Stacking the Shelves, Caffeinated Reviewer’s The Sunday Post, and the Sunday Salon over at Readerbuzz. Hoping to reconnect with other bloggers and readers a bit more after my quiet time of the last year or two!

Books acquired this week:

As I predicted in last week’s post, I went on a bit of a bookshopping spree while I was away for the week in lovely Bath. I’ll start with my haul from the lovely Topping & Company, and save my other acquistions for another week, since I don’t expect to get more new books until Christmas now!

Topping & Company have a pretty great mix of everything; I think Edinburgh and Bath are my favourite branches in terms of selection, but Edinburgh is the most magical (somehow, it’s bigger on the inside, and there’s always another corner round which there are yet more books), though Bath’s might be the nicest building. I love the ladders (on rails so you can easily move them) and the fact they wrap the books in plastic. I liked the Ely branch too — it was surprisingly big considering the narrow store-front — but Edinburgh probably wins overall.

Not that I didn’t have fun in the Bath branch! I let the friend I was with choose a couple of the non-fiction books for me based on both his random interests and mine, so this should be fun. (His picks were Rebel Cell and Overkill. The others are my own fault.)

Cover of Rebel Cell by Kat Arney Cover of A Fish Caught in Time by Samantha Weinberg Cover of Ten Birds That Changed the World by Stephen Moss

Cover of Sticky by Laurie Winkless Cover of Overkill by Paul Offit Cover of A Short History of Tomb Raiding by Maria Golia

Of course, I didn’t stick to non-fiction only. I also grabbed a couple of the older Christmas-themed anthologies of short stories from the British Library Crime Classics series, this year’s Christmas mystery from Ada Moncrieff (I’m always sceptical of gimmicky things, but the previous two didn’t come across as gimmicky), and a couple of books from the SF/F section. Unnatural Magic was my friend’s recommendation, while A Portrait in Shadow has been on my wishlist for a while.

Cover of Final Acts ed. Martin Edwards Cover of Silent Nights, edited by Martin Edwards Cover of The Christmas Card Game edited by Martin Edwards Cover of Murder at Maybridge Castle by Ada Moncrieff

Cover of Unnatural Magic by C.M. Waggoner Cover of A Portrait in Shadow by Nicole Jarvis

All in all, it was quite the haul, as you can see!

Posts from this week:

I reviewed quite a few books this week, so here’s a quick recap:

I also posted a guide to some crime fiction:

What I’m reading:

Right now I’m between books, but it’s December now, so I expect to start tucking into some of the Christmas-themed crime novels I have. I’ve been waiting for December to start on John Dickson Carr’s The White Priory Murders, and also to read my November book from the British Library Crime Classics subscription, so… iiiit’s time!

I’ve finished a few books this week; I haven’t written the reviews for most of them yet, but here’s a glimpse of the line-up:

Cover of The Waking of Angantyr by Marie Brennan Cover of Unwell Women by Elinor Cleghorn Cover of The Frugal Wizard's Handbook for Surviving Medieval England by Brandon Sanderson Cover of Peter Cabot Gets Lost by Cat Sebastian Cover of The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System by Mò Xiāng Tóng Xiù

Cover of Dragons' Teeth and Thunderstones by Ken McNamara Cover of The Golden Mole by Katherine Rundell Cover of Adrift by Tracey Williams Cover of Daniel Cabot Puts Down Roots by Cat Sebastian

Clearly the holiday time was good for me!

And that’s it from me; how’s everyone else been getting on?

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Review – Exodus 20:3

Posted December 1, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Exodus 20:3

Exodus 20:3

by Freydís Moon

Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 92
Rating: three-stars

Religious eroticism and queer emancipation meet in a claustrophobic monster-romance about divinity, sexuality, and freedom.

When Diego López is guilted by his mother into taking a low-key construction job in New Mexico, he doesn’t expect to be the only helping hand at Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. But the church is abandoned, decrepit, and off the beaten path, and the only other person for miles is its handsome caretaker, Ariel Azevedo.

Together, Diego and Ariel refurbish the old church, sharing stories of their heritage, experiences, and desires. But as the long days turn into longer nights, Diego begins to see past Ariel’s human mirage and finds himself falling into lust—and maybe something else—with one of God’s first creations.

Like the other book by Freydís Moon that I’ve read, this features a trans masc protagonist, who is infinitely more messed up and unsupported, and stumbles into a strange situation he doesn’t fully understand in order to try and pay back his debts to his family after some big mess-ups. Diego’s supposed to be restoring a church, but he quickly suspects there’s something very unusual about Ariel and he’s both drawn to him and scared of him — and scared of what he may offer.

Spoilers ahead, now: I suspect that there are readers who would be completely repelled by the spirituality of this book, since it features an angel who is determined to show Diego God’s love through sex and physicality. And seems to succeed, to a large degree.

Sex is a big focus of the story here, and Diego’s more personal level of connection to Ariel isn’t really explored as much — only his lunge at the forgiveness offered, at the grace he can be shown. As a novella, it doesn’t have room to do a lot, and the intensity of those scenes is definitely well done — I’d just hoped for a bit more understanding of Ariel, as well.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Rogue Planet

Posted November 30, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Rogue Planet

Rogue Planet

by Cullen Bunn, Andy Macdonald, Nick Filardi

Genres: Graphic Novels, Horror, Science Fiction
Pages: 133
Rating: two-stars

Salvage vessel Cortes tracks the Lonely Orphan, a planet with no star system to call its own. Somewhere on this hostile rock is a payload fit for a king. To attain it, though, the crew of the Cortes must brave razor rock, poisonous vapors, treacherous footing, and... the most mind-numbing horrors imaginable. Struggling to stay alive, they are beset at every turn by horrors from their own nightmares. Now, they have discovered that they are not alone on the planet, and the other inhabitants welcome them... as sacrifices to an elder god.

Stranded on a vicious, murderous, seemingly intelligent planet, the crew of the Cortes must reevaluate what it truly means to survive, and what they are willing to do in order to spare their own lives.

Cullen Bunn’s Rogue Planet is a fairly predictable sci-fi/horror story: a group visit a planet where they should, in theory, be able to get rich quick, led in by a beacon… and of course things go messily wrong, with gore and horrors a-plenty.

I didn’t think it stood out among that sort of genre, with the characters having little to make them jump out; the art was okay, but didn’t particularly impress me with “hey, that looks really neat” or “that’s gorgeous” or even “that’s a whole new way to make something look gross”.

It wasn’t bad in any way, I don’t think, just… fairly run of the mill if you’re an SF/F reader. I’d been hoping for something a bit more innovative, I suppose! I think it could be fun if you’re less versed on the tropes of the genre, since it’ll come as a bit more of a surprise.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Around the World in 80 Trees

Posted November 29, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Around the World in 80 Trees

Around the World in 80 Trees

by Jonathan Drori, Lucille Clerc

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 240
Rating: five-stars

In Around the World in 80 Trees, Jonathan Drori uses plant science to illuminate how trees play a role in every part of human life, from the romantic to the regrettable. From the trees of Britain, to India's sacred banyan tree, they offer us sanctuary and inspiration - not to mention the raw materials for everything from aspirin to maple syrup.

Stops on the trip include the lime trees of Berlin's Unter den Linden boulevard, which intoxicate amorous Germans and hungry bees alike, the swankiest streets in nineteenth-century London, which were paved with Australian eucalyptus wood, and the redwood forests of California, where the secret to the trees' soaring heights can be found in the properties of the tiniest drops of water.

Each of these strange and true tales -- populated by self-mummifying monks, tree-climbing goats and ever-so-slightly radioactive nuts -- is illustrated by Lucille Clerc, taking the reader on a journey that is as informative as it is beautiful. The book combines history, science and a wealth of quirky detail - there should be surprises for everyone.

Like Around the World in 80 Plants, this is beautifully illustrated by Lucille Clerc, in much the same style: sometimes the images show details of the trees, sometimes a more zoomed out look, and sometimes the pictures include images that illustrate the text directly to show how the trees are used or handled.

If anything, the text seemed livelier in this book than in the other — like, perhaps, the author is just a bit more enthusiastic about trees than general plants. I certainly flew through the book, and found a couple of new-to-me facts that I was eager to tell other people. (Like the stuff about avocado trees!)

If there’s a plant-lover in your life, it’d make a wonderful gift, and there’s also plenty of titbits to pique the interest of anyone who likes this sort of history-through-a-specific-type-of-object (like myself), or just enjoys learning about all kinds of things (also me).

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Cold Clay

Posted November 28, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Cold Clay

Cold Clay

by Juneau Black

Genres: Crime, Fantasy, Mystery
Pages: 208
Series: Shady Hollow #2
Rating: four-stars

It's autumn in Shady Hollow, and residents are looking forward to harvest feasts. But then a rabbit discovers a grisly crop: the bones of a moose.

Soon, the owner of Joe's Mug is dragged out of the coffeeshop and questioned by the police about the night his wife walked out of his life—and Shady Hollow—forever. It seems like an open-and-shut case, but dogged reporter Vera Vixen doesn't believe gentle Joe is a killer. She'll do anything to prove his innocence ... even if it means digging into secrets her neighbors would rather leave buried.

Juneau Black’s Cold Clay is another reasonably cosy mystery in the same vein as the first book: if you didn’t enjoy that, then you won’t find yourself charmed by this one, and if you did enjoy the first one, it’s likely your thing unless the conceit is wearing thin for you already. For me, it wasn’t: I was ready to suspend my disbelief once more, readily engage with the world in which a raven runs a bookshop and a moose a café, and get mildly outraged that the police bear would arrest a hard-working honest moose.

If that all sounds ridiculous, it may not be for you, but the book treats it as obvious (aside from a brief introductory page in which it advises not to get caught up on the how of it all), and it doesn’t get played as ridiculous. Really it’s just about people, except they happen to have some animal traits. Here and there I was annoyed that they didn’t use their animal traits a bit more (flying’s all very well, but some of you have noses, why did nobody ever hunt down a quarry by scent?), but mostly I just suspended my disbelief and settled in to enjoy.

I say it’s a “reasonably” cosy mystery because… I’m never entirely sure where the boundaries are on this one. Murder seems, by definition, pretty uncosy — but a lot of mystery fiction is really about that closure at the end, and saying “everything is going to be okay now”, which is profoundly cosy. Your mileage may vary, but I think this one qualifies.

As far as the actual plot goes, once again I was a bit ahead of the game and identified the culprit quickly, but watching Vera get there was entertaining as far as it goes. I could’ve done without the relationship drama between Orville and Vera — really, kids, just communicate! But all in all, I enjoyed myself once more, and quickly grabbed the next book in the series, the short stories, and the fourth book as well for good measure. I’m having fun.

Rating: 4/5

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books Set in… the Golden Age of Crime

Posted November 28, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 28 Comments

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday prompt is “Top Ten Books Set in X”. I was having trouble thinking of a place or a type of location or anything that I was confident of thinking up ten items for — but I do know a lot about the Golden Age of crime. The Golden Age for crime fiction was basically in the 1920s and 1930s, and it featured a lot of books written in the same kind of framework, often set in the interwar period. Usually an unlikeable character is set up and then murdered, and a detective (amateur, private or police) comes along and solves the mystery, closing things out with a comfortable solution that sees order restored. Often the solution is very clever — locked room mysteries and such, very contrived, setting a puzzle for the reader.

These books tend to have a certain sort of feel to them, and I love them dearly. So without further ado, here’s a top ten of books with that kind of feel. I’m not just going to include classic books or books that are strictly from the Golden Age, but also a couple of books that I think try to tap into the feel of that era.

Cover of Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers Cover of Fire in the Thatch by E.C.R. Lorac Cover of Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton Cover of The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

  1. Strong Poison, by Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers was a giant of this genre, along with others like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, and Strong Poison features not only her series detective (Lord Peter Wimsey), but his love interest and eventual wife, Harriet Vane. In writing the two of them together, Sayers was often at her wittiest, and they have a slow-burn, will-they-won’t-they for the ages.
  2. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie. I couldn’t leave out the queen here, so I’ll give you the book I read first and which got me hooked on books of the period. She breaks the “rules” in a couple of ways, but most readers won’t mind, because it’s a fun puzzle. (It’s also worth noting that Christie often wrote about poisons with intimate knowledge, though not in this book — if you’re curious, I recommend Kathryn Harkup’s A is for Arsenic, which discusses that at some length.)
  3. Fire in the Thatch, by E.C.R. Lorac. I think E.C.R. Lorac was genuinely among the greats of the era, even though she was mostly forgotten (at least until the British Library Crime Classics series started republishing her work). This one is characteristic of the care she takes to evoke people and a landscape and a way of living. It’s a little later than the peak Golden Age of crime, but nonetheless, it has that feel to it.
  4. Death in the Tunnel, by Miles Burton. This mystery is one I absolutely loved — and one which would’ve fit into my other potential category, which was “books set on trains”. It’s less focused on people and place than Lorac, and more about the puzzle — and it was a fun one!
  5. The Sussex Downs Murder, by John Bude. As an example of this genre/setting, this is a good one; it’s a solid puzzle, with the sort of methodical detecting characteristic of the period. This sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, but I’d rather say I’m setting expectations. I enjoyed it a lot, but you have to enjoy it as what it is, and not as a modern psychological crime novel.
  6. Death on the Down Beat, by Sebastian Farr. This one came as a bit of a surprise to me when I read it: it’s an epistolary novel, and also includes a piece of music as a vital clue. It also managed to fool me, which isn’t always easy.
  7. Twice Around the Clock, by Billie Houston. This is a book that was celebrated a bit more when it came out, owing to the author’s minor celebrity. It’s a country house novel with a closed circle of suspects, which is such a classic situation that (combined with the fact that I found it a lot of fun) I had to include it.
  8. Cocaine Blues, by Kerry Greenwood. This one is, of course, a modern novel — and it’s preoccupied with a few things that the classics usually aren’t (sex, fashion, etc). But it has a little of the same feel, to me — and you can believe that the Honorable Phryne Fisher has met Lord Peter Wimsey.
  9. Death at Wentwater Court, by Carola Dunn. Again, this is a modern novel, but it feels very Golden Age. Daisy Dalrymple is an enjoyable protagonist, and certain aspects of the situation in this book are deeply classic for mysteries of the Golden Age.
  10. Shady Hollow, by Juneau Black. Bear with me here, because this isn’t only a modern novel, but also all the protagonists are animals, living peacefully together (herbivores beside carnivores) in a little village. It also feels much less British than all the others I’ve listed. But this is my list, and I get to include something a little aside from the track if I want to: it’s the little village setting and the old-timey feel that makes this one fit into my list.

Cover of Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr Cover of Twice Round the Clock by Billie Houston Cover of Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates by Kerry Greenwood Cover Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn Cover of Shady Hollow by Juneau Black

Alright, that was a bit of work! Did anything there interest you? I’d be curious to hear!

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Review – Settling Scores

Posted November 27, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Settling Scores

Settling Scores: Sporting Mysteries

by Martin Edwards (editor)

Genres: Crime, Mystery, Short Stories
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars

Talented sportsmen inexplicably go absent without leave, crafty gamblers conspire in the hope of making a killing, and personal rivalries and jealousies come to a head on fields of play The classic stories in this new British Library anthology show that crime is a game for all seasons.

I thought I’d read these sporting mysteries (in this collection curated by Martin Edwards) in honour of the Rugby World Cup, the only sport I have so far managed to care about or even half-understand. The majority of these stories need no sporting knowledge at all to understand and follow; the sporting environment is just the backdrop. Even where you do need to know something, it’s fairly minimal.

It’s not a bad spread of stories, though the tone varies a bit (some stories feel rather brutal, and one involves spies and espionage, etc). Not one of my favourite collections, perhaps, but the sporting types might appreciate it a bit more. I did appreciate that it wasn’t just football and cricket stories or something — there was an archery story included, for example.

As ever, the collection is greater than the sum of its parts: it’s nice to read across a spread of the classic crime/mystery writers, and not just the biggest names, though there is (inevitably) a story by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – In Miniature

Posted November 26, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – In Miniature

In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World

by Simon Garfield

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 335
Rating: four-stars

Simon Garfield writes books that shine a light on aspects of the everyday world in order to reveal the charms and eccentricities hiding in plain sight around us. After beguiling fans with books about everything from typography to time, from historic maps to the color mauve, he's found his most delightful topic yet: miniatures.

Tiny Eiffel Towers. Platoons of brave toy soldiers. A doll's house created for a Queen. Diminutive crime scenes crafted to catch a killer. Model villages and miniscule railways. These are just a few of the objects you will discover in the pages of In Miniature.

Bringing together history, psychology, art, and obsession, Garfield explores what fuels the strong appeal of miniature objects among collectors, modelers, and fans. The toys we enjoy as children invest us with a rare power at a young age, conferring on us a taste of adult-sized authority. For some, the desire to play with small things becomes a desire to make small things. We live in a vast and uncertain world, and controlling just a tiny, scaled-down part of it restores our sense of order and worth.

As it explores flea circuses, microscopic food, ancient tombs, and the Vegas Strip, In Miniature changes the way we perceive our surroundings, encouraging all of us to find greatness in the smallest of things.

I rather love small things myself — small ereaders (please, please, Onyx Boox Palma, fall into my hands somehow!)*, small books, etc. When I was little, I used to make tiny books for my teddies, and there was a whole miniature library as a result, with multiple bookcases for different genres. So I was attracted to the premise of this book by Simon Garfield, though the nature of the miniatures it discusses are heterogeneous.

I didn’t actually love the chapter on miniature books, because the super, super small stuff you can only appreciate with a microscope does not appeal. I like books that are tiny but readable, so the books in Queen Mary’s doll’s house and the chapter on that appeals more.

It’s a bit of a random collection of anecdotes in the end, but it captures some of the magic of miniature things, some of the motivation that leads people to make them and look at them. I wouldn’t mind a look at some of the described exhibits, myself.

* Since I wrote this review, it did! Or, you know, I bought it, like a sensible person. And yes, it’s really awesome.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Ogres

Posted November 25, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Ogres


by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 102
Rating: three-stars

Ogres are bigger than you. Ogres are stronger than you. Ogres rule the world.

It’s always idyllic in the village until the landlord comes to call.

Because the landlord is an Ogre. And Ogres rule the world, with their size and strength and appetites. It’s always been that way. It’s the natural order of the world. And they only eat people sometimes.

But when the headman’s son, Torquell, dares lift his hand against the landlord’s son, he sets himself on a path to learn the terrible truth about the Ogres, and about the dark sciences that ensured their rule.

I found Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Ogres took me a surprising amount of time to read, despite the length of the book. It’s a pretty unpleasant place to be, in a very believably human way — one which I don’t always care to spend my leisure time dwelling on.

I did enjoy the sting in the tail of the story. I hadn’t worked out who the narrator was (if indeed it was anyone important), so that was interesting. I like second-person POV when it’s done well, though I know others hate it, and I think it was… okay, here. Sometimes it didn’t feel right, when it dug too much into the interior life of Torquell, but mostly I thought it worked. If it’s a pet peeve of yours, though, this won’t be for you.

It all feels a little simplified and fable-like — a political fable, told with serious bias (and intentionally so; I don’t mean that I’m accusing Tchaikovsky of anything here, I’m talking about it as an in-world object).

Altogether, enjoyably put together, but not something I entirely enjoyed the experience of reading.

Rating: 3/5

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