Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Death and the Conjurer by Tom Mead

The cover of Death and the Conjurer features an illustration of a top hat with an elevator door set within it. The elevator appears to be filled with blood and a bird is flying out of it.
Image Description: The cover of Death and the Conjurer features an illustration of a top hat with an elevator door set within it. The elevator appears to be filled with blood and a bird is flying out of it.

A magician-turned-sleuth in pre-war London solves three impossible crimes.

In 1930s London, celebrity psychiatrist Anselm Rees is discovered dead in his locked study, and there seems to be no way that a killer could have escaped unseen. There are no clues, no witnesses, and no evidence of the murder weapon. Stumped by the confounding scene, the Scotland Yard detective on the case calls on retired stage-magician-turned-part-time-sleuth Joseph Spector. Who better to make sense of the impossible than one who traffics in illusions?

Spector has a knack for explaining the inexplicable, but even he finds that there is more to this mystery than meets the eye. As he and the Inspector interview the colorful cast of suspects among the psychiatrist’s patients and household, they uncover no shortage of dark secrets—or motives for murder. When the investigation dovetails into that of an apparently impossible theft, the detectives consider the possibility that the two transgressions are related. And when a second murder occurs, this time in an impenetrable elevator, they realize that the crime wave will become even deadlier unless they can catch the culprit soon.

A locked room mystery? An ‘impossible’ crime? An illusionist sleuth? An homage to the Golden Age of detective fiction? I knew as soon as I read the blurb for acclaimed short-story writer Tom Mead’s debut novel, Death and the Conjuror that this was one blog tour I very much wanted to be part of!

London, 1936 and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Flint is called to a seemingly impossible crime scene. Renowned Austrian psychiatrist Anselm Rees has been found dead in his locked study, his throat violently slashed. With no way for the killer to exit the room unseen, Flint calls upon the expertise of retired illusionist Joseph Spector to help solve the baffling mystery.

Rees had a selective client base and, at the time of his death, he had only three patients: all celebrities in their respective fields. But why would an actor, a musician, or a writer want to kill a psychiatrist who was helping them with their problems? Could one of Rees’s past cases be the real motive behind his murder? Or could the killer lie closer to home in the shape of Rees’s daughter – and student – Lidia and her boorish fiancé? With no shortage of suspects to choose from, Spector and Flint set out to sort reality from illusion and unmask Rees’s killer before they strike again.

Tom Mead’s affection for Golden Age locked-room mysteries is evident on every page of Death and the Conjurer. There are several references – both overt and oblique – to some of the Golden Age masters and mistresses of the genre, and both Spector and Flint make several knowing nods towards the tropes of the ‘impossible’ crime tale. The result is an energetic homage to the genre that, although aware of the tropes it engages with, consistently uses them in a way that feels fresh and engaging.

Spector is an interesting protagonist: a Jonathan Creek intellect combined with the stylistic flair of a classic stage magician and the enigmatic charm of Sherlock Holmes. Flint makes for a solid foil to the more exuberant elements of Spector’s personality and both characters are written with a knowing nod and a wink to the usual conventions of the police detective/private consultant dynamic. The supporting characters are also an eclectic bunch although there is occasionally a sense that some of them exist to serve the plot more than as characters in their own right.

The simple and direct style of storytelling belies the complexity of the puzzles that Spector and Flint are tasked with solving and the novel definitely kept me guessing right up until the final pages. Whilst personally I would have liked a slightly longer denouement – and a greater exploration of the eventual criminal’s motivation – I enjoyed the way that Mead provide links back to the clues that had been scattered throughout the text so that you could ‘see’ the workings of the story and follow Spector’s solving of the case.

Death and the Conjurer is a wry homage to the classic locked room mystery and introduces an interesting sleuth in the form of Joseph Spector. Whilst I occasionally wanted the characters to have a little more depth, the plotting of this engaging mystery is flawless and kept the pages turning right up until the very end. Fans of the classic locked room mysteries of John Dickson Carr will surely find much to enjoy here, as will anyone who loves a puzzling mystery.

Death and the Conjurer by Tom Mead is published by Aries Fiction/Head of Zeus on 02 February 2023. It is available to preorder now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 08 February 2023 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However, if you enjoy the blog, please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Cloisters by Katy Hays

The cover of The Cloisters features a highly stylised image of a skull picked out in flowers, leaves, and butterflies.
Image Description: The cover of The Cloisters features a highly stylised image of a skull picked out in flowers, leaves, and butterflies.

Ann Stilwell arrives in New York City, hoping to spend her summer working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead, she is assigned to The Cloisters, a gothic museum and garden renowned for its medieval and Renaissance collections.

There she is drawn into a small circle of charismatic but enigmatic researchers, each with their own secrets and desires, including the museum’s curator, Patrick Roland, who is convinced that the history of Tarot holds the key to unlocking contemporary fortune telling.

Relieved to have left her troubled past behind and eager for the approval of her new colleagues, Ann is only too happy to indulge some of Patrick’s more outlandish theories. But when Ann discovers a mysterious, once-thought lost deck of 15th-century Italian tarot cards she suddenly finds herself at the centre of a dangerous game of power, toxic friendship and ambition.

And as the game being played within the Cloisters spirals out of control, Ann must decide whether she is truly able to defy the cards and shape her own future . . .

The Cloisters, billed as ‘The Secret History meets Ninth House‘, is the debut novel from Art History professor Katy Hays.

Now, if I had a pound for every time I’ve been picked up a book that promises to be ‘the next The Secret History‘, I’d…well, I’d almost certainly have enough to buy the recently released hardback anniversary edition of Donna Tartt’s acclaimed novel. Fortunately, however, The Cloisters more than lives up to its illustrious namesakes.

Set within the titular Cloisters – the branch of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated exclusively to the art of the Middle Ages – the novel follows Ann Stilwell, a recent graduate of a small liberal arts college, as she is plunged head-first into a world of academic rivalries and dangerous secrets.

Desperate to escape the humdrum rhythms of provincial life – and the tragic death of her beloved father – Ann is thrilled to have been accepted for a summer internship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. When a mix-up on arrival leads to her being re-assigned to The Cloisters, she is drawn into the close-knit circle that surrounds the museum’s curator, Patrick Roland, and his research into the history of Tarot. But as Ann’s relationships with her colleagues – the enigmatic Rachel Mondray and handsome gardener Leo – develops, she suddenly finds herself at the centre of a dangerous game of power and ambition: one that is only complicated when she discovers the hidden key to unlocking their research. Is Ann’s fate tied to the cards she has been dealt? Or can she break free of the fortune they have foretold and shape her own future?

Moreish and beguiling, The Cloisters provides all the dark academia feels. Toxic friendships, professional rivalries, candlelit rituals, and Gothic architecture abound. There’s even a poison garden that, mild spoiler alert, turns out to be exactly as deadly as the concept suggests.

Ann is a pleasingly unreliable narrator who, over the course of the novel, appears to follow the standard trajectory from naïve small-town girl to assured city slicker under the tutelage of the charismatic Rachel Mondray. Some shocking revelations towards the novel’s end, however, made me rethink Ann as a considerably more complex character than she first appears. Equally complex are Rachel, Leo, and Patrick, Ann’s colleagues at The Cloisters. All are playing dangerous games but to what ends? And can Ann navigate between them to fulfil her own dreams of success?

Katy Hays has absolutely nailed the claustrophobic, ‘Knives Out’ side of academia and does an excellent job of portraying the disadvantage that Ann – a first generation PhD student – has in navigating some of the more unwritten codes and rules that govern the ivory tower she has determined to climb. Given that everyone is, essentially, out for themselves, none of the characters in The Cloisters are especially likeable if you examine them closely. As with The Secret History, however, they are all deeply charismatic and, before long, I could not only understand why Ann wanted ‘in’ on their club, I found myself willing her to succeed in her quest to reinvent herself in their mould.

There’s so many different layers to The Cloisters that it’s a hard novel to sum up in a review – especially when I don’t want to give away any spoilers! Safe to say, however, that very little at The Cloisters is quite as it seems. Tarot and divination are a running theme, as is the related debate about fate and free will. As such, The Cloisters is a novel that touches upon history, art, philosophy, and literature, although it wears its learning lightly and gradually draws the reader into thinking about complex, age-old questions.

Combining a Gothic mystery with a compellingly dark coming-of-age tale and a dash of extremely interesting history, The Cloisters is an accomplished debut that is told with spellbinding assurance. I will, however, freely admit that the novel might as well have been labelled ‘Shelf of Unread Catnip’ because it has all the ingredients that make me love a book: modern gothic, twisty mystery, literary/historical references, dark academia feels, and unhealthy but compelling relationships. In short, The Cloisters would have had to work quite hard to make me not love it. That said, I genuinely do think this is a captivating debut and I heartily recommend it to fans of The Secret History, The Historian, Ninth House, and Babel.

The Cloisters by Katy Hays is published by Bantam Press/Transworld Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing an copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However, if you enjoy the blog, please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Spotlight

BLOG TOUR SPOTLIGHT!!! Irex by Carl Rackman

I’m delighted to be back on another blog tour for The Write Reads today and to be spotlighting Irex, a historical mystery set in the nineteenth century from author Carl Rackman.

The cover of Irex features the image of the masts and rigging of a sailing ship, caught against the backdrop of a stormy sky with lightning flashing around it.
Image Description: The cover of Irex features the image of the masts and rigging of a sailing ship, caught against the backdrop of a stormy sky with lightning flashing around it.

About the Book

In the harsh winter of December 1889, the sailing vessel Irex leaves Scotland bound for Rio de Janeiro. She carries three thousand tons of pig iron and just three passengers for what should be a routine voyage. But Captain Will Hutton discovers that one of his passengers hides a horrifying secret.

When the Irex is wrecked off the Isle of Wight six weeks later, it falls to the county coroner, Frederick Blake, to begin to unravel the events that overtook the doomed ship — but he soon finds that powerful forces within the British Establishment are working to thwart him. Locked in a race against time and the sinister agents sent to impede him, he gradually discovers that nothing aboard the Irex is what it first seemed…

About the Author

 Carl Rackman is a British former airline pilot turned author. He spent my working life travelling the world and this has given him a keen interest in other people and cultures. He’s drawn on his many experiences for his writing.

Carl writes suspense thrillers with a grounded science-fiction theme. He likes reading novels that feature atmospheric locales and enjoys complex, absorbing storylines combined with rich, believable characters, so that’s the sort of fiction he writes. He tries to create immersive worlds for the reader to explore, and characters who are more than just vehicles for the story.

Carl comes from a naval military background and has held a lifelong interest in military history and seafaring – so all his books usually contain some of these elements!

Irex was Carl’s debut novel but he has since written Voyager, Jonah, Incendiary, and Sentinel. He is currently working on Book Three in the ‘Voyager’ trilogy, which has the working title Dominion.

Find Out More!

You can find out more about Carl and his work on his website, or by following him on Twitter (@CarlRackman).

Irex by Carl Rackman is available now from Amazon in both paperback and ebook formats. The book is also available as an EPub ebook via Lulu and Smashwords, with purchase links available on the author’s website.

My thanks go to The Write Reads for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour! There are lots of other reviews and spotlights on the tour so follow the hashtags #Irex #TheWriteReads and #BlogTour.

Reviews and features on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW!!! My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (read by Kimberly Farr)

The cover of My Name is Lucy Barton features an illustration of a New York skyline depicted through a window.
Image Description: The cover of My Name is Lucy Barton features an illustration of a New York skyline depicted through a window.

A mother comes to visit her daughter in hospital after having not seen her in many years.

Her unexpected visit forces Lucy to confront her past, uncovering long-buried memories of a profoundly impoverished childhood, and her present, as the façade of her new life in New York begins to crumble, awakening her to the reality of the faltering marriage and her unsteady journey towards becoming a writer.

From Lucy’s hospital bed, we are drawn ever more deeply into the emotional complexity of family life, the inescapable power of the past and the memories – however painful – that bind a family together.

You ever struggle with a book in one format, then switch to another and suddenly the book just ‘clicks’? Well, My Name is Lucy Barton is one such book for me.

When a member of my in-person book group suggested we read Oh William, the third book in Elizabeth Strout’s Amgash series, for our meeting this coming February, I knew I’d have to go back and begin the series at the beginning. Yes, I am one of those readers.

Yet despite being told by several people they they adored Strout’s work and that I was in for a treat, I just kept bouncing off My Name is Lucy Barton whenever I picked up the print book. The narrative seemed hazy, the narrator irritatingly passive, and the conversations between the eponymous Lucy and her estranged mother stilted and unnatural.

When my library loaned copy of the book could no longer be renewed – 12 weeks after I’d first taken it out – I therefore decided to give the book one last go by switching formats and listening to it. One audible credit later and voila, Kimberley Farr was suddenly bringing Lucy Barton to life in a way that just worked.

Yes, the narrative still had that hazy quality but suddenly it became dreamlike: an ordering of Lucy’s thoughts and a reflection of the ephemeral nature of time and the fragmentation of memory. And yes, Lucy Barton is an irritatingly passive narrator but my irritation with her indecisiveness just made her seem more real. And yes, the conversations she has with her mother are stilted but that’s because there is something of the unnatural in their relationship; in the way that neither can quite reach across the boundaries of time and distance to fully express the history they share and the emotions they carry.

Because, despite her seemingly comfortable New York life, Lucy Barton is a woman ill at ease with herself. Brought up in a profoundly impoverished household, she has fled the stifling confines of her rural hometown: first for college and then for New York, marriage to William, and motherhood to two beloved daughters. But when her mother comes to visit her unexpectedly in hospital, Lucy is suddenly confronted with long-buried memories of her impoverished childhood, stark and uncomfortable truths about the realities of her seemingly comfortable life, and the fleeting possibilities of a creative life that she had barely dared to dream of.

It’s hard to fully encapsulate My Name is Lucy Barton in a review. Listening to the book – and to Farr’s gentle narration of it – was akin to listening to poetry. There was something meditative and rhythmic, both in the recitation and in the story itself, that bought the various patterns of Lucy’s life to the surface and exposed the fractures that lay within. For such a short book – it’s barely more than 200 pages in print and just over 4 hours on audio – it packs an hefty emotional punch, and I’m still mulling over certain fragments and anecdotes several days after finishing up the narrative.

That isn’t to say that My Name is Lucy Barton is a perfect book. It is, at times, indescribably sad. And at others, thoroughly depressing. Lucy is, by turns, self-centred, childlike (and childish), passive to the point of annoyance, and innocent to the point of exasperation. Her mother, meanwhile, is cold, distant, and capable of great emotional and psychological cruelty. But, like Lucy herself, its imperfections almost make it easier to like. As Lucy recounts at one point, ‘This is a story about a woman who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly’. And indeed, Lucy and her mother only seem all the more real because of their imperfections, and the narrative is only more compelling as a result.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout and narrated by Kimberley Farr is available from Audible and other audiobook providers. The book is also available in paperback from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Wordery, and Bookshop.org.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However, if you enjoy the blog, please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Witches of Vardø by Anya Bergman

 The cover of The Witches of Vardø features a woodcut-style image of a blue cat amidst red flames.
Image Description: The cover of The Witches of Vardø features a woodcut-style image of a blue cat amidst red flames.

Norway, 1662. A dangerous time to be a woman, when even dancing can lead to accusations of witchcraft. When Zigri, desperate and grieving after the loss of her husband and son, embarks on an affair with the local merchant, it’s not long before she is sent to the fortress at Vardø, to be tried and condemned as a witch.

Zigri’s daughter Ingeborg sets off into the wilderness to try to bring her mother back home. Accompanying her on this quest is Maren – herself the daughter of a witch ­- whose wild nature and unconquerable spirit gives Ingeborg the courage to venture into the unknown, and to risk all she has to save her family.

Also captive in the fortress is Anna Rhodius, once the King of Denmark’s mistress, who has been sent to Vardø in disgrace. What will she do – and who will she betray – to return to her privileged life at court?

These Witches of Vardø are stronger than even the King of Denmark. In an age weighted against them they refuse to be victims. They will have their justice. All they need do is show their power.

‘The savage north held me captive. I was imprisoned in falling snow and blinded by glaring white light, empty of all shadows. I stood upon the ship’s deck and nothing was before me.’

Like Anna Rhodius, cast adrift upon a sea of ice by a pernicious king, I was held captive by The Witches of Vardø, imprisoned within Anya Bergman’s utterly compelling tale of patriarchal injustice, female power, and survival.

When an ill-advised affair leads to accusations that she has been fornicating with the devil, young widow Zigri is hauled off to the fortress of Vardøhus for trial. Ingeborg, Zigri’s eldest daughter, promises to rescue her mother – but when Zigri’s former lover abandons the family, Ingeborg has no choice but to seek the help from the enigmatic Maren, the daughter of the most famous – and most deadly – of Norway’s witches. Meanwhile, within the fortress of Vardøhus, physician’s daughter Anna Rhodius seeks to return to her privileged life by extracting the confessions of these supposed witches.

Inspired by the real events that took place on the island of Vardø between 1662 and 1663, The Witches of Vardø tells the story of these three women as their lives become entwined and they fight to survive in the face of terrible accusations. As the frantic hunt for witches continues – and more accused women are brought to Vardøhus – Zigri, Ingeborg, and Anna must navigate between the paranoia of the powerful men who control their destiny, the desperation of their own situations, and their own desires for freedom and justice.

Enrapturing from the off, The Witches of Vardø paints a moving portrait of an age weighted against women – and against poor women in particular. Whilst Zigri, Ingeborg, and Anna all refuse to be victims, their efforts to exercise their power are frequently thwarted by the deadly combination of patriarchal authority, religious mania, and deep-rooted superstition that has been consolidated against them. Add in each women’s desperation to save herself – and her willingness to betray others in order to do so – and you’ve got a wild ride of a book that simmers with oppressive tension.

Whilst I was immediately drawn into the world of the novel, the story itself does take a while to really develop as Anya Bergman spends the opening chapters drawing her reader into the everyday lives of these women and their communities. As such, the sudden descent of violence upon them in the form of the Baliff and his men has real force, upsetting the quiet order of the narrative as much as it does the lives of Ingeborg and her family.

I found all of the women to be interesting characters. Torn between her desire to help her mother and her anger at Zigri’s folly, Ingeborg is a sympathetic character who it is easy to empathise with. Zigri and Anna are more challenging to a reader’s sympathies: Zigri because her pursuit of individual pleasure, though somewhat understandable, has denounced her family in the eyes of both the church and the state, and Anna because, although justifiably proud of her intelligence, she uses it to manipulate and betray other women. The complexities of both women are bought across however and, whilst I did not always agree with their choices, I found myself understanding why they had made them.

The male characters were, admittedly, slightly less successful. Governor Orning and Baliff Lockhert didn’t really impress themselves upon me as more than a religious zealot and a sadist respectively. Anna’s former lover is similarly distanced from the narrative, both physically and emotionally, and acts at times as a cipher for patriarchal oppression. Zare, the Sámi leader who helps Ingeborg and Maren is more complex but I didn’t feel as if we really got to know him all that well during the course of the novel. This is, perhaps, Bergman’s point. As Maren frequently reminds Ingeborg, their menfolk cannot protect these women and, as such, they must help themselves.

Indeed, although Ingeborg and Anna act as the main narrators of the novel, I found Maren to be the most compelling and it is through her character – and those of the Sámi with whom she fosters forbidden friendships – that the magical realism elements of the novel are explored. Blending Nordic folktales, Norse mythology and Sámi mythology with historical fact could have been risky but Anya Bergman merges each element together into a seamless tale that effectively conveys the power of folklore and knowledge, as well as the dangers that being perceived to hold such power can have.

Whilst The Witches of Vardø does not shy away from the horrors endured by those accused of witchcraft – and fully explores the complexities of loyalty, and betrayal amidst such circumstances – it is a powerful testament to female power in the face of persecution and a captivating tale of the friendships and connections that can be forged in the face of adversity. Beautifully written and underpinned by thorough research of the subject and period, The Witches of Vardø is a must read for any historical fiction fan.

The Witches of Vardø by Anya Bergman is published by Manilla Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting me onto and organising this blog tour. The tour continues on Twitter and Instagram until 20 January 2023 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews · Upcoming Books

REVIEW!!! The Drift by C. J. Tudor

The cover of The Drift is blood red with a slash of white. Inside the white section is the image of a snow covered chalet against the backdrop of a stormy sky
Image Description: The cover of The Drift is blood red with a slash of white. Inside the white section is the image of a snow covered chalet against the backdrop of a stormy sky.

Survival can be murder…

During a deadly snowstorm, Hannah awakens to carnage, all mangled metal and shattered glass. Evacuated from a secluded boarding school, her coach careered off the road, trapping her with a handful of survivors.

Meg awakens to a gentle rocking. She’s in a cable car stranded high above snowy mountains, with five strangers and no memory of how they got on board.

Carter is gazing out of the window of an isolated ski chalet that he and his companions call home. As their generator begins to waver in the storm, the threat of something lurking in the chalet’s depths looms larger.

Outside, the storm rages. Inside one group, a killer lurks. But which one? And who will make it out alive?

Spend enough time in crime/thriller forums and blogger groups and it probably won’t be long until the name C. J. Tudor crops up. Tudor has been a fan favourite ever since the publication of her debut novel, The Chalk Man, with a reputation for edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster plotting and ‘you-won’t-see-it-coming’ twists. Her work has been on my ‘To Read’ list for a while so I was thrilled to get the opportunity to read her latest novel, The Drift, in advance of publication.

Like Tudor’s previous books, The Drift provides plenty of twists and turns. Unlike previous books, however, Tudor has amped up the chills – both literally and metaphorically – for this tale of three groups of snowbound survivors, set in a near-future dystopia. Alternating between boarding school student Hannah, trapped onboard a crashed coach; former police officer Meg, stuck onboard a precariously-perched cable car with a group of strangers and a dead body; and Carter, who calls an isolated chalet known only as The Retreat home, The Drift cleverly weaves together three separate locked-room mysteries, before adding in a dash of apocalyptic terror in the form of deadly virus and the terrifying entities known only as ‘The Whistlers’.

Fans of Tudor’s previous works might be slightly taken aback by the novel’s drift into horror, although those who have encountered her short story collection, A Sliver of Darkness, may be more prepared for the tonal shift. Having not read her previous novels, I can’t comment on how much tonal difference there is between The Drift and Tudor’s usual fare. Personally, however, I think the novel has a foot in both the ‘thriller’ and ‘horror’ camps, with the horror gaining the edge as the novel progresses.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t thrills here. Indeed, unravelling the connections between Hannah, Meg, and Carter is a brilliantly twisty adventure (and when the penny drops as to what does link the three, I promise that your jaw will hit the floor!). But as the backdrop to the novel becomes more apparent – and it becomes clear what these three survivors are really up against – there’s a definite shift into apocalyptic dystopian territory and the horror that you would expect to be associated with that.

In terms of how that reads on the page, I don’t think there’s anything that will trouble anyone but the most squeamish of readers. There’s a bit of gore but no more than you get in the average serial killer thriller. Indeed, most of the ‘horror’ comes from the increasing knowledge of the situation the characters find themselves in and from Tudor’s careful management of atmosphere and tension. Combining several nail-biting moments with deliciously slow-burn reveals and some explosive set-pieces, The Drift definitely delivers the ‘edge-of-your-seat’ factor, whilst providing more than a few ‘don’t-read-with-the-lights-off’ moments too!

Given that the novel features three separate storylines, there are a lot of characters to wrap your head around in The Drift and this was, for me, the novel’s weakest point. Whilst each of the central characters – Hannah, Meg, and Carter – are well-drawn and interesting, the supporting cast felt indistinct. In many cases this wasn’t an issue as those characters weren’t especially vital to the plot and (mild spoiler alert) a lot of them end up adding to the book’s fairly hefty body count. However, in one particular instance, I think we’re very much supposed to care – and to understand why a particular character cares – about someone that, personally, I felt I barely got to know.

That minor niggle aside, however, I thoroughly enjoyed The Drift. It’s an unusual blend of horror and thriller but, to my surprise, it works very well and I’m in awe of how Tudor managed to weave together the seemingly disparate strands of the narrative (as I said above, jaw-dropping pretty much covers the moment of revelation about the connection between the three protagonists) without falling down a plot hole or giving the game away before the end! Fans of Tudor’s previous novels might be slightly surprised at the direction The Drift takes but, with its spine-chilling thrills and rollercoaster plotting, it’s sure to delight as much as previous novels. I’ll definitely be going back to read some of her previous work on the basis of this book – and will be eagerly awaiting whatever comes next!

The Drift by C. J. Tudor is published by Penguin on 19 January 2023 and is available to pre-order now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Bookshop.org.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher and @JenLovesReading for providing an copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However, if you enjoy the blog, please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Books of the Year · Discussion Time · Reading Horizons

My Books of the Year 2022 and Reading Resolutions 2023…Sort Of.

As 2022 shuffles out of the back door and 2023 bounds in the front, it appears that it is once again time to think about rounding up one reading year and establishing some goals for another.

Except, I’m not going to do that.

I used to really enjoy writing my ‘Books of the Year’ post – and I love reading posts by others about their favourite books – but, as the blog has grown and my reading appetites have increased, it’s become increasingly hard to narrow down the books that I’ve enjoyed into an easily digestible list.

That’s not to say that every book I’ve read this year has been a stone cold classic. But I find placing numerical values on books really difficult. It’s why I prefer writing reviews to star ratings. Some books resonate far more than I anticipated when I originally read them, others were highly enjoyable at the time but haven’t really stayed with me. Both types of book are enjoyable but they’ve very different kinds of reading experience which makes deciding on how to formulate a ‘best’ list increasingly challenging.

I was pondering how to overcome this when I read this fantastic post by Clare over at Years of Reading Selfishly which not only encapsulated many of my thoughts on my reading life this past year but also gave me the confidence to do away with my traditional Best Books of the Year post and write this instead.

As Clare says in her post, different books give you different things at different times. Or, to put it another way, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven”. My life – like many of yours I’m sure – goes through different seasons (and occasionally feels like it’s trying to take in several seasons all at once!) and my reading habits naturally change with them. So I don’t want to pick out books that reflect only my current ‘season’ when my year has been made up of wonderful variety, and the books that I’ve loved have each done their job as and when I’ve needed them too.

In the last couple of years, Goodreads informs me that I’ve read over 100 books per annum. And by ‘read’, I mean finished because I tend not to log DNFs. And if I’ve finished a book, then I’ve enjoyed it on some level because life’s too short to read books you’re not enjoying. All of which is a long way of saying that, if I’ve catalogued a book on my Goodreads or Storygraph pages, reviewed it here on the blog, or raved about it over on Twitter or Instagram, I’ve enjoyed it on some level and, if it sounds interesting to you too, you have my heartiest recommendation to go check it out.

So, if I’m not giving you a Best Books of 2022 list, I’m a least going to provide some Reading Resolutions for 2023 list, right?

Sorry, ‘fraid not.

Whilst I love reading about other people’s reading goals, and seeing the challenges that people are setting for themselves, I’ve come to the conclusion that establishing set reading resolutions or challenging myself to read specific books/genres just doesn’t work for me.

As a PhD student and academic, I do a lot of reading for ‘work’ (for those who don’t known my PhD is in, unsurprisingly, English Literature) and a finite amount of time – and energy – left to read for pleasure. So whilst I can force myself to read a text that is challenging, difficult, or not in my usual comfort zone, after a day of doing just that for work, I like to read as the mood takes me when I finally get to fun reading time. Indeed, for me, it’s pretty much the only way I can keep reading for pleasure when reading and analysing text is, essentially, my day job.

So, I’m afraid there’s going to be no reading goals from me either this year. Instead my goal is, as always, to keep reading and to keep sharing the book love by nattering away on here and on socials about the books and authors that I love.

And on that note, I want to say a big thank you to all those authors whose books I have read and shouted about this year. Whether you’ve written something that has transported me, entertained me, made me think, made me laugh, or made me cry, your books have kept me reading and kept me blogging and, on more than one occasion, probably kept me sane.

I also want to say a huge thank you to all of you who have taken the time out to read my blog, to share your own thoughts on the books that I’ve read, to interact with me on Twitter or Instagram, or to just chat books more generally. Book people really are the best people and the book community is a wonderful one to be part of.

So, to conclude, I would like to wish each and every one of you a very happy – and very bookish – New Year!

Amy x

Blog Tours · Extracts · Spotlight

BLOG TOUR SPOTLIGHT & EXTRACT!!! Death on a Winter Stroll: A Merry Folger Christmas Mystery by Francine Mathews

Today I’m delighted to be part of the Austenprose book tour for Death on a Winter Stroll, a Christmas entry into Francine Mathews’ Merry Folger mystery series, and to share a spotlight AND an extract from the book with you.

The cover of Death on a Winter Stroll features a wooded arbour covered in snow
Image Description: The cover of Death on a Winter Stroll features a wooded arbour covered in snow

About the Book

No-nonsense Nantucket detective Merry Folger grapples with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and two murders as the island is overtaken by Hollywood stars and DC suits.

Nantucket Police Chief Meredith Folger is acutely conscious of the stress COVID-19 has placed on the community she loves. Although the island has proved a refuge for many during the pandemic, the cost to Nantucket has been high. Merry hopes that the Christmas Stroll, one of Nantucket’s favourite traditions, in which Main Street is transformed into a winter wonderland, will lift the island’s spirits. But the arrival of a large-scale TV production, and the Secretary of State and her family, complicates matters significantly.
 
The TV shoot is plagued with problems from within, as a shady, power-hungry producer clashes with strong-willed actors. Across Nantucket, the Secretary’s troubled stepson keeps shaking off his security detail to visit a dilapidated house near conservation land, where an intriguing recluse guards secrets of her own. With all parties overly conscious of spending too much time in the public eye and secrets swirling around both camps, it is difficult to parse what behaviour is suspicious or not—until the bodies turn up.
 
Now, it’s up to Merry and Detective Howie Seitz to find a connection between two seemingly unconnected murders and catch the killer. But when everyone has a motive, and half of the suspects are politicians and actors, how can Merry and Howie tell fact from fiction?
 
This latest instalment in critically acclaimed author Francine Mathews’ Merry Folger series is an immersive escape to festive Nantucket, a poignant exploration of grief as a result of parental absence, and a delicious new mystery to keep you guessing.

Advance Praise for Death on a Winter Stroll

“This fast-moving mystery packs in a lot, but never too much, and will work for fans of coming-of-age stories, police procedurals, and romance.” —First Clue

“Fresh, well-wrought prose brings the setting of Nantucket to life. Mathews consistently entertains.” —Publishers Weekly

“Christmas and death come to Nantucket . . . Plenty of fascinating characters and myriad motives make for an exciting read.” —Kirkus Review

“Mathews consistently places relationships at the forefront of her mysteries, and Merry’s unique blend of tenacity and humanity makes her a heroine to root for.”—USA Today bestselling author Karen Odden, author of the Inspector Corravan mysteries

About the Author

Francine Mathews was born in Binghamton, New York, the last of six girls. She attended Princeton and Stanford Universities, where she studied history, before going on to work as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. She wrote her first book in 1992 and left the Agency a year later.

Since then, she has written thirty books, including six previous novels in the Merry Folger series (Death in the Off-SeasonDeath in Rough WaterDeath in a Mood IndigoDeath in a Cold Hard Light, Death on Nantucket, and Death on Tuckernuck) as well as the nationally bestselling Being a Jane Austen mystery series, which she writes under the pen name Stephanie Barron. She lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

Read an EXTRACT from Death on a Winter Stroll…

One of the perks of being police chief was the ringside seat Merry Folger commanded for certain critical moments. For instance, this Saturday morning—the first weekend in December, with the sun high in the sky and a brisk, cold wind driving whitecaps across the water as a Coast Guard cutter sailed toward Straight Wharf.

Her white SUV with the distinctive navy and gray police markings was parked where no cars were allowed, within the Christmas Market barricades that blocked the wharf’s access to town. She and Peter were lounging against the bumper in their most festive winter gear. Merry’s father, John, was inside the car staying warm. They were waiting for Santa Claus to dock.

Nearby was the Town Crier and some of the town’s Select- persons who would escort the Man in Red to his island sleigh, a vintage firetruck owned by the Nantucket Hotel. Santa would stand in the back, waving, while the Town Crier walked ahead, ringing his bell, announcing the glad tidings of great joy.

“Look at that guy,” Peter muttered in her ear as a man roughly their age walked by, natty in sunglasses, a suit, and a knotted Stroll scarf. Nothing abnormal about that, except that the suit had red and green stripes with white death’s-heads and fists stamped all over it.

“Kind of like North-Pole-meets-Venice-Beach-tattoo-parlor,” Merry suggested. “You prefer the blonde, I take it?”

The blonde wore a minidress covered in hot pink sequins and thigh-high boots made of fake mink. She had a jingle bell on each boob.

Every third person in the crowd—and there were about ten thousand people in town, jockeying for the best viewing spots— was dressed in ways bizarre or wonderful. The color and noise and exuberance were thrilling after the cheerless quarantine holidays, and Merry was grinning helplessly. She glanced over her shoulder and gave her dad a thumbs-up. John was drinking coffee laced with peppermint schnapps in his passenger seat. He saluted her with his mug.

The sight of him sitting alone jolted her suddenly, as it did whenever she looked for her grandfather, Ralph Waldo Folger, and remembered he’s gone now. The freshness of loss stunned her each time like a blow to the face.

Merry had known her eighty-nine-year-old grandfather was vulnerable in the pandemic. She and John had talked by phone daily about ways to keep Ralph safe. As a frontline worker exposed for the duration to a germ-laden public, Merry had stayed scrupulously away from her childhood home on Tattle Court throughout the first waves of sickness. Peter arranged for grocery deliveries twice a week and dropped supplies from Marine Home at John’s front door. And Ralph was healthy for nearly a year: social distancing on his daily walks, wearing a mask when he ventured into town. He contracted Covid nine days before he was scheduled for his first vaccine.

Nantucket Cottage Hospital had five ventilators; Ralph never made it to one of them. Sickening on a Friday, he was delirious by Sunday and medevacked to Boston in the wee hours of Monday. Intubated, he lingered in a medically induced coma for four days.

What dropped Merry to the floor when they got the news, sobbing and hugging her knees as though she’d been sucker punched, was the fact that her careful distance hadn’t mattered a darn. Ralph was alone when he died. And she hadn’t seen or touched him for a year before that. Of all the pandemic’s cruelties, this was the coldest.

Her father thrust open the car door and stepped out to the paving beside her. “Boat’s in,” he said.

She linked her arm through his as the cutter drew along- side. A couple of ensigns jumped off with sheets in their hands and moored the steel-gray vessel to the wharf’s stanchions. The Town Crier hailed the boat, Santa waved, horns blared, the drum corps drummed. Merry and Peter and John whooped along with everyone else. Despite the logistics and the responsibilities, she was nominally handling, despite her underlying grief, joy shot through Merry as she fell into step behind the Selectpersons and jauntered after Santa’s firetruck. For the length of Main Street at least, she was uncomplicatedly happy.

It felt like the whole island celebrated with her.

Find Out More!

You can find out more about Francine and her work on her website, and by following her on Twitter (@SBarronAuthor), Facebook, and Instagram (@stephaniebarronfrancinemathews).

Death on a Winter Stroll: A Merry Folger Christmas Mystery by Francine Mathews is published by Soho Crime and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Amazon UK, Amazon US, Bookshop.org, Wordery, and Book Depository.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to Austenprose PR for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 19 December 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However, if you enjoy the blog, please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Winter Guest by W C Ryan

The cover of The Winter Guest features a manor house within a snowy wintery setting. The house and its surroundings are picked out in white against a dark blue background.
Image Description: The cover of The Winter Guest features a manor house within a snowy wintery setting.

January 1921. Though the Great War is over, in Ireland a new, civil war is raging. The once-grand Kilcolgan House, a crumbling bastion shrouded in sea-mist, lies half empty and filled with ghosts – both real and imagined – the Prendevilles, the noble family within, co-existing only as the balance of their secrets is kept.

Then, when an IRA ambush goes terribly wrong, Maud Prendeville, eldest daughter of Lord Kilcolgan, is killed, leaving the family reeling. Yet the IRA column insist they left her alive, that someone else must have been responsible for her terrible fate. Captain Tom Harkin, an IRA intelligence officer and Maud’s former fiancé, is sent to investigate, becoming an unwelcome guest in this strange, gloomy household.

Working undercover, Harkin must delve into the house’s secrets – and discover where, in this fractured, embattled town, each family member’s allegiances truly lie. But Harkin too is haunted by the ghosts of the past and by his terrible experiences on the battlefields. Can he find out the truth about Maud’s death before the past – and his strange, unnerving surroundings – overwhelm him?

Although I didn’t end up reviewing it for the blog – for reasons I now cannot remember but probably had a lot to do with time (or lack thereof) – I very much enjoyed W C Ryan’s previous novel, A House of Ghosts, which successfully combined an engaging period mystery with a gently unsettling ghost story and just a dash of the spy thriller. Ryan’s latest novel, The Winter Guest, refines that effective formula by upping the espionage antics, complicating the ghostly subplot, and adding in a dash of romance.

As with A House of Ghosts, The Winter Guest is set in the aftermath of the First World War. Captain Tom Harkin, formerly of the British Army, is now back home in Ireland and working covertly as an intelligence officer for the IRA. When his former fiancé, Maud Prendeville, is killed in what appears to be an IRA ambush gone wrong, Tom is summoned to Kilcolgan House at the request of his former employer, Maud’s uncle Sir John Prendeville, to investigate. The local British Auxiliary Forces, led by the sadistic and unpredictable Major Abercrombie, insist that the IRA must have killed Maud. But whilst they admit to killing her companions, the local IRA column swear that they left Maud – a staunch supporter of Irish independence and a survivor of the Easter Rising – alive. Unravelling the truth will lead Tom into an uneasy alliance with a member of British intelligence, into the investigation of an arms deal gone wrong, into the dark secrets and ghosts of the Prendeville family, and back into his own past and his memories of the trenches.

I was fascinated by the setting of The Winter Guest as, whilst I have read a number of novels set in the aftermath of the First World War, very few of them have been set in Ireland and, to my shame, I know very little about the history of Ireland or the fight for Irish Independence. Ryan doesn’t shy away from portraying the escalating violence and heartbreak of what is, in effect, a country engaged in a Civil War and the novel effectively portrays the heightened emotions and tensions that arise as a result, with Tom soon caught up in a spiral of retaliatory action and political one-upmanship. Few of the characters are being entirely honest with him but is that because they know something about Maud’s death? Because they suspect him of having an association with the IRA? Or for other reasons of their own?

The novel also benefits from effective characterisation with a charismatic – but not entirely infallible – lead and an interesting cast of supporting characters. Major Abercrombie is a particularly well-drawn combination of unhinged anger and calculated malice, whilst Harkin’s love interest Moira is a fiercely intelligent and amusing foil to his slightly more dour personality. I also enjoyed the uneasy truce that arises between Harkin and his opposite number in British intelligence, with both men united by their desire to see Maud’s killer, or killers, bought to justice.

Although not a ‘ghost story’ in the traditional sense, The Winter Guest is a novel imbued with hauntings. In addition to the ghostly White Lady said to appear at Kilcolgan House before the death of any Prendeville, Tom’s generation is haunted by their experiences in the trenches. Tom himself, invalided home with a shrapnel injury, is still suffering from the aftereffects of concussion and ‘shellshock’ (a type of what would now be termed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) whilst the Prendeville family continue to mourn the loss of their eldest son and heir in the trenches. And Ireland itself is portrayed as a country haunted: by secular and religious divisions, by the aftermath of the Easter Rising, and by the broken promises and treacheries of British Imperialism. So whilst there aren’t many things that go bump in the night here, The Winter Guest is certainly a novel full of ghosts and the atmosphere of the book is a suitably gloomy and foreboding one.

With a satisfying mystery/espionage plot and an effective realisation of both time and place, The Winter Guest more than matches up to its predecessor and makes for an engaging and interesting historical read. Fans of A House of Ghosts will find less overt hauntings here but will enjoy the same atmosphere, tension, and pacing that made his previous read so enjoyable.

The Winter Guest by W C Ryan is published by Zaffre and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However, if you enjoy the blog, please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

BBNYA · Blog Tours · Spotlight

BBNYA SPOTLIGHT!!! The Ones Who Could Do Anything by Nicholas J. Evans

This year, the Book Bloggers’ Novel of the Year Award (BBNYA) is celebrating the 55 books that made it into Round Two with a mini spotlight for each title. For those of you who don’t know, BBNYA is a yearly competition where book bloggers from all over the world read and score books written by indie authors, ending with 15 finalists and one overall winner.

It’s been an absolute pleasure to be part of the BBNTA team again in 2022 and I’m thrilled to be part of the spotlight tours to celebrate our fantastic semi-finalists! Today I’m starting things off by spotlighting The Ones Who Could Do Anything by Nicholas J Evans.

The cover of The Ones Who Could Do Anything features an image of a boy made up of shattered shards of glass. The boy is leaping into the air.
Image Description: The cover of The Ones Who Could Do Anything features an image of a boy made up of shattered shards of glass. The boy is leaping into the air.

About the Book

The first time Eric jumped he didn’t know he could fly.

His world closed in as he stood on that bridge, a stale cigarette between his lips and breath that burned sour notes of yesterday’s coffee. The rushing water below reminded him of the bustling halls of his school, and he let charred memories crumble to embers as his feet left the railing.

Eric had no idea that one leap would introduce him to Dr. Kovacs, and an entirely new world, an entirely new beginning. Now, Eric works with a team as worn and beaten as himself to solve the mystery of the Executioner who hunts them while picking up the pieces of his broken life.

When Eric jumped, he didn’t know he could fly, but he does now.

About the Author

Nicholas J. Evans is an author originally from New York who currently resides in Maine with his wife and four children. He was a co-founding member of the post-hardcore group, NoraStone, where he spent the years of 2011 – 2017 touring with them and he is featured on their first three albums. Following the birth of his first child, he ended his time with the band to focus on new career paths, and during this time he returned to writing short stories as he had in years prior.

He is best known for his sci-fi noir novel series, For Humans, For Demons, and his stand-alone urban fantasy, The Ones Who Could Do Anything, along with a short novella featured in the Beyond The Cogs anthology. When not writing, Nick enjoys spending time with his kids, gaming with his wife, and being a general nuisance.

Find Out More!

You can find out more about Nicholas and his work by following him on Twitter (@NickEvansWrites) and Instagram (@nickevanswrites).

If you want some more information about BBNYA, check out the BBNYA Website https://www.bbnya.com/ or take a peek over on Twitter @BBNYA_Official.

BBNYA is brought to you in association with the @Foliosociety (if you love beautiful books, you NEED to check out their website!) and the book blogger support group @The_WriteReads.

The Ones Who Could Do Anything by Nicholas J Evans is published by Black Rose Writing and is available from Amazon via their UK, US, and Canadian storefronts.

My thanks go to The Write Reads and BBNYA for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour! There are lots of other spotlights on the tour so follow the hashtag #BBNYA2022.

Reviews and features on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However, if you enjoy the blog, please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!