Reviews · Upcoming Books

REVIEW!! Changeling by Matt Wesolowski

ChangelingOn Christmas Eve in 1988, seven-year-old Alfie Marsden vanished in the Wentshire Forest Pass, when a burst tyre forced his father, Sorrel, to stop the car. Leaving the car to summon the emergency services, Sorrel returned to find his son gone. No trace of the child, nor his remains, have ever been found. Alfie Marsden was declared officially dead in 1995.

Elusive online journalist, Scott King, whose ‘Six Stories’ podcasts have become an internet sensation, investigates the disappearance, interviewing six witnesses, including Sorrel, his son and his ex-partner, to try to find out what really happened that fateful night. He takes a journey through the trees of the Wentshire Forest – a place synonymous with strange sightings, and tales of hidden folk who dwell there. He talks to a company that tried and failed to build a development in the forest, and a psychic who claims to know where Alfie is…

If you’ve followed The Shelf for a while or seen my ravings on Twitter (@shelfofunread) you’ll know I’m a big fan of Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series featuring online investigative journalist Scott King. Matt’s debut, Six Stories, was a deliciously dark thriller that justly deserved its place on my Best Books of 2017 list. It’s sequel, Hydra, built on those foundations with a sinister story for the internet age. And, with his latest book Changeling, Weslowski is, if possible, moving it up another notch with an unsettling tale about a missing boy, a grieving father, and long-buried secrets kept within the depths of an ancient forest.

As with Hydra, Changeling is a completely standalone ‘series’ of Six Stories, Scott King’s online podcast. So whilst I would highly recommend both Six Stories and Hydra to first-time readers (I mentioned they’re both utterly brilliant, right?), there’s no need to have read either book in order to enjoy the story on offer here. Once again we have a complete podcast series comprising of six episodes, each featuring the point of view of someone connected to the disappearance of little Alfie Marsden back in 1988. This time the episodes are interspersed with Scott King’s own narrative, one that often raises more questions than it answers. Who is the mysterious Anne who claims she knows more about the case than she is telling? Why is she speaking out after all this time? And why is Scott trying to solve the disappearance of Alfie Marsden instead of just reporting it? Getting answers is a rollercoaster of a ride and Weslowski keeps the reader guessing right up until the very last page!

As with the previous Six Stories books, Changeling absolutely oozes atmosphere. The eerie silence of Wentshire Forest, with its dark, foreboding paths and sinister, oppressive glades is brilliantly portrayed on the page. Woven into this creepy setting are tales of the supernatural and uncanny, from disembodied knocking to vengeful witches and mischievous fairy folk. There’s a palpable sense of tension, inching up slowly as Scott uncovers each narrative and adds each new perspective to Alfie’s story.

And those narratives are brilliantly conceived, transporting you straight into Scott’s investigation as you learn about Alfie, his family, and his disappearance. What would cause an ordinary little boy to become a difficult, angry child? Why has his mother never involved herself with the search to find him? What caused all of the electrics to fail during the search? As a reader, you find yourself probing, questioning, guessing, and reading between the lines and into the answers of every person involved in the search for the truth. The sense of disquiet ramps up with each turn of the page, taking the reader along on Scott’s journey, investigating alongside him every step of the way.

But what really knocked me for six was the way in which Wesolowski shows how, for all our tales of the sinister and the supernatural, the true monsters in life are much more mundane but equally terrifying. Changeling has a powerful ending, one that I won’t spoil here by saying anything other than it’s definitely one of the best twists I’ve read and that it packs an emotional punch that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

As a fan of the Six Stories series, I knew I was going to enjoy Changeling. What I hadn’t anticipated was how much I would enjoy it. Changeling has jumped straight into my Best Books of 2018 with its brilliant pacing, creeping sense of unease and powerful, chilling story. Matt Wesolowski is a name that deserves to be better known amongst readers so I’d urge any mystery, crime and thriller fans – as well as anyone who loves a great read with a side order of sinister – to check out the Six Stories series and Changeling in particular – this is definitely Matt’s best book yet.

Changeling by Matt Wesolowski is published by Orenda Books and is available now as an ebook. The paperback and audiobook will be released on 15 January 2019, available from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon

 

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Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! The Lingering by S J I Holliday

The Lingering front FINALJack and Ali are looking for a fresh start and a new home at Rosalind House, a self-sufficient commune established in a former psychiatric hospital.

But the couple are clearly not all they seem, and their arrival sparks a chain of unexpected and unexplained incidents.

As the disturbing history of Rosalind House and the nearby village comes to light, events from the past return to haunt the residents, and someone is seeking retribution…

The best ghost stories, for me anyway, balance a thin tightrope between reality and the supernatural. Veer too far into the realm of ghouls and ghosts, and the book teeters into a horror. Not enough chill, however, and you’re left with a psycho-drama. Whilst The Lingering is definitely at the drama end of this spectrum, it walks this tightrope expertly; providing just enough by way of ghostly goings-on to keep the shivers running down the spine whilst maintaining the tension required for a compelling domestic thriller.

Told from multiple perspectives the novel primarily focuses on married couple Ali and Jack, whose entry into the self-sufficient community of Rosalind House sets off a chain of events that quickly spiral out of control. From the off, it is clear that all is not well with Ali and Jack. From Jack’s rapidly shifting moods to Ali’s watchful demeanour, this is a couple with secrets and it is the gradual revealing of these that drives the plot forwards. It’s a stately start, which could be off-putting to some readers; especially those used to page-turning domestic thrillers. Stick with it though because Ali and Jack’s journey is going to some very dark places indeed and, once the pace picks up, you’re on a non-stop ride of chills and revelations right up until the very last page.

The supernatural elements are handled really well, with the focus very much on the psychological elements of the supernatural. You’re never really sure exactly what is real and what is imagined in The Lingering, a trait that fits very well with the crime/thriller elements of the plot and leads to a hybrid novel that perfectly captures the essence of a good ghost story whilst remaining true to its crime thriller roots. Holliday has a masterful control of narrative tension, gradually building up a creeping sense of claustrophobia and unease before drawing it all together into a chilling conclusion that is sure to leave you double-checking the shadows of a night time!

I was also impressed with Holliday’s handling of character. Jack and Ali aren’t the most likeable of people – Ali, in particular, is a difficult customer with plenty of sharp edges and disturbing thoughts – but Holliday does a great job of keeping the reader by their side. By alternating between their perspectives and those of existing commune members, such as naive Angela and commune leader Smeaton, you get a real sense of each person and begin to genuinely worry for the safety of the commune and the family that has been created within it. And the interspersed diary entries (from Dr Henry Baldock’s 1955 journal) do a fantastic job of foreshadowing the dark events to come.

The Lingering is a brilliantly creepy tale that blends the gothic and the contemporary to deliver a sharp, spooky shot of unease. A fantastic blend of Susan Hill and Stephen King, this haunting book is a must for fans of the supernatural story as well as for those seeking a psychological thriller that’s prepared to offer something a little bit different. Original, dark, thrilling and atmospheric, read it with the lights on and – just a tip – maybe avoid reading this one in the bath!

The Lingering by SJI Holliday and published by Orenda Books is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing me with a copy of the book as part of an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me onto this blog tour and organising it. The blog tour continues until 30 November 2018 so do check out the other stops along the way!

Lingering blog poster 2018 (1) (1)

 

 

Blog Tours · Reviews · Seasonal Reads

BLOG TOUR!! The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin

Long ShadowJolted from sleep by the ringing of the telephone, Imogen stumbles through the dark, empty house to answer it. At first, she can’t quite understand the man on the other end of the line. Surely he can’t honestly be accusing her of killing her husband, Ivor, who died in a car crash barely two months ago.

As the nights draw in, Imogen finds her home filling up with unexpected Christmas guests, who may be looking for more than simple festive cheer. Has someone been rifling through Ivor’s papers? Who left the half-drunk whiskey bottle beside his favourite chair? And why won’t that man stop phoning, insisting he can prove Imogen’s guilt?

As the nights draw in and cosying up in front of the fire with a book and a blanket once again becomes a socially acceptable way to spend an entire evening, I do love reading a good mystery. There’s something about settling down with a puzzle that fits with the season so I’ve been a big fan of recent efforts by a number of publishers to track down and reissue seasonally appropriate titles.

Celia Fremlin’s The Long Shadow is the latest in Faber & Faber’s re-discovery of the Edgar Award-winning novelist, following on from their 2017 edition of her debut, The Hours Before Dawn. Fremlin, heralded as a talented writer of domestic suspense in her day, seems to have been largely forgotten following her death in 2009 and, on the evidence of The Long Shadow, certainly deserves a larger readership upon the reissuing of her works.

Although there is nothing particularly innovative about the mystery element of The Long Shadow, the tone is something quite unique. Fremlin has given her main character, the newly widowed Imogen, a sharp, wry tone completely at odds with her role of the grieving widow. It’s the source of a great deal of dark humour within the book, as in this scene, where Imogen and her widowed neighbour, Edith, discuss the new year:

“‘Not a happy New Year, Imogen, because we both know hat cannot be,’ Edith was saying, her lined, indoor face haggard and hungry-looking in the silvery winter sunshine. ‘Not a happy, but a peaceful year, that’s what I shall wish for you, my dear: I pray that you may discover what I discovered: that even though happiness is at an end, you may still win through to a kind of peace….’

I won’t. If they try to palm me off with peace, I’ll throw it at them. Happiness is where I’m going and I shan’t stop till I get there. If Peace comes and gets in the way, I shall kick it.

‘Thank you, Edith, and the same to you,’ was what she said aloud: and five minutes later, found herself wondering whether Peace hadn’t, after all, something to be said for it.”

Brilliant isn’t it?! So sharp yet without acid. To me, Fremlin perfectly captures the exact thoughts that often go through our heads during a polite conversation, but which we would never dare to say out loud! It makes Imogen a very different kind of narrator and gives the tone of the book a feel of Patricia Highsmith, filled with sharp observations on human nature and character.

This isn’t to say that the plot is in any way lacking, however. There is a well-crafted mystery here, with plenty of subtle clues that require astute reading to unravel. I feel though that Fremlin is more interested in the psychological aspects of crime that the method and means. Her focus in The Long Shadow is what makes her characters tick – the nuances of human behaviour and personal circumstance that might lead someone to do something desperate. In pursuit of this, she succeeds in crafting a tense and suspenseful domestic setting, filled with acutely observed characters with plenty of secrets to hide.

The Christmas link is, if I’m honest, a little tenuous. Although Christmas is the occasion that results in the deceased Ivor’s eclectic friends and family descending on Imogen, only part of the action takes place over the festive season and I think if you were seeking a specifically festive flavour complete with oodles of mince pies and snow at every corner, you might be a tad disappointed here. That said, I can’t blame Faber for seeing the marketing opportunity and if it brings more readers to this excellent writer, then I think we should forgive the slight over-emphasis on the holiday that the cover suggests.

Astute, well-observed, and cleverly crafted, The Long Shadow is a clever and compelling mystery with a side order of domestic noir. It’s clearly the product of a writer with a talent for observation and a wry, dark sense of humour. I can certainly recommend it to fans of Patricia Highsmith, as well as those who enjoyed more recent domestic chillers such as Kate Muray Browne’s The Upstairs Room. Well done to Faber for reissuing Fremlin’s work and helping her work enjoy the readership that it surely deserves.

The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin and published by Faber & Faber is available now as a paperback and ebook in all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher, Faber & Faber, for providing me with a copy of the book and inviting me to take part in this tour in return for an honest and unbiased review. The blog tour continues until 24 November 2018 so please do go and check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

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Reviews

REVIEW! A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

39080732The Center for women’s reproductive health offers a last chance at hope – but nobody ends up there by choice.

It’s very existence is controversial, and to the demonstrators who barricade the building every day, the service it offers is no different from legalised murder.

Now life and death decisions are being made horrifyingly real: a lone protester with a gun has taken the staff, patients and visitors hostage.

Certainties unwind as truths and secrets are peeled away, revealing the complexity of balancing the right to life with the right to choose.

Jodi Picoult has developed a reputation as a writer unafraid to confront certainties. Over the course of her many novels, she has challenge perceptions in a number of complex contemporary debates including gun control, assisted dying, and the Black Lives Matter movement. In her latest novel, A Spark of Light, she turns her pen to abortion laws; an especially controversial topic in Picoult’s native US where an increasingly conservative Supreme Court may reverse Roe vs Wade, but also a topic of fierce and deeply-held beliefs the world over.

It’s a debate that requires careful representation on the page and, to her credit, Picoult balances her novel extremely well, giving voice to both sides of the argument, from the doctor who performs abortions because of his faith and not in spite of it, to the pro-life protestor disguised as a patient, Picoult provides the reader with a set of rounded and developed individuals, each with their own beliefs and motivations. Depending on your viewpoint, some of them may be deeply unlikeable but, thanks to the strength of Picoult’s writing, they are all human.

Unravelling backwards through the hours of the standoff, the narrative plays with time to both increase the tension and unpack the debate. As Picoult herself writes in her author’s note, ‘Laws are black and white. The lives of women are a thousand shades of grey’. In constructing her novel backwards, Picoult casts light on these myriad shades of grey, revealing motivations after actions, thereby encouraging the reader into judgement before leading them to understanding. It’s extremely cleverly done and led to me questioning my view of more than one character or event in the book.

Having had the pleasure of hearing Picoult speak during an event held at Booka Bookshop, I’m aware of how much research went into A Spark of Light. Picoult visited abortion clinics and witnessed abortions, spoke with pro-life protesters, and interviewed women who have had abortions. Her research certainly shows in the book, however, it isn’t worn heavily. It is clear that Picoult, who speaks with passion and eloquence when discussing this debate in person, wanted to do justice to the complexities but still write an engaging and readable novel. By ensuring her novel is driven by characters and their situations, she succeeds in this and, as a result, A Spark of Light never feels dry or preachy – although I think it’s fairly clear which side of the debate Picoult herself sits on.

I feel that, as a writer, Picoult is often dismissed as writing ‘women’s fiction with issues’. As with many of these labels, this in no way does justice to her books. Yes, A Spark of Light does deal with a controversial issue. And yes, many of the characters featured are women. However, with strong, controlled prose, a deep and meaningful narrative, and developed, complex characters, A Spark of Light offers a powerful and thought-provoking read that deserves to be widely read. Picoult’s many fans will doubtless find much to praise in her latest work but, for those readers who have not yet picked up one of her novels, A Spark of Light offers a compelling narrative that is sure to spark conversation and engage debate.

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon. I was able to sign up and read A Spark of Light as a serialisation on The Pigeonhole, the book club in your pocket, and also won tickets to the Booka Bookshop event through then. My review is, as always, however, unbiased and all opinions are my own. 

Blog Tours · Extracts

BLOG TOUR!!! The Glorious Dead by Tim Atkinson

The Glorious Dead CoverWhat happened when the Great War ended and the guns stopped firing? Who cleared the battlefields and buried the dead?

It’s 1918 and the war may be over but Lance-Corporal Jack Patterson and the men of his platoon are still knee-deep in Flanders mud, searching the battlefields for the remains of comrades killed in action.

But duty isn’t all that’s keeping Jack in Flanders. For one there is Katia, the daughter of a local publican, with whom he has struck up a romance. And then there is something else, a secret that lies buried in Jack’s past, one he hopes isn’t about to be dug up…

I’m delighted today to be part of the blog tour for The Glorious Dead, Tim Atkinson’s fascinating novel about a little-known aspect of The Great War. Focusing on the soldiers who stayed to clear up the aftermath of four long years of fighting, the novel is a testament to the forgotten generation, as well as to those who endeavoured to preserve their dignity and memory afterwards. I’m so pleased to be able to share an exclusive extract from the second chapter of the book with you today.

———————————————————————

The old ex-RAMC ambulance bounces along across the weed-strewn cobbles of the Menin Road and into the Grote Markt. ‘That’s right,’ Ocker shouts as Blake, the platoon driver, eases off on the accelerator. ‘Give ’em one last ride to remember.’

The wagon stops and the engine judders to a standstill in the empty market square. Four years of constant shelling have left Ypres little more than a bombed-out ruin, but just three months after the Armistice the roads have all been cleared and piles of stone line the streets, covered in a thin layer of snow.

‘Right.’ Sergeant Townend jumps down from the cab, and runs his stick along the canvas sides of the truck. ‘Everybody out!’

‘They can’t hear you, Sarge,’ a muffled voice replies. ‘You what?’

‘They’re all flamin’ dead!’

Lined up inside the ambulance, sewn into sacks tied with luggage labels, the results of the morning’s exhumations drip and settle on the wooden stretcher shelves.

‘Come on,’ Jack says, unbolting the tailgate of the old green Albion lorry that has been following the motor ambulance back from Zonnebeke. ‘I’ve had enough of this.’

‘Me too,’ says another soldier, jumping down and wiping his brow with a tartan handkerchief.

‘What’s the plan then, Jacko?’ asks Ocker as he watches Sergeant Townend turning on his heels and striding off across the cobbles.

‘The plan?’ Jack narrows his eyes and frowns as he stares after the NCO. ‘That depends on where’s Townend’s going. Anyone know?’

Skerritt grunts and raises his hand. ‘Anyone who can talk!’

‘Said he was going to see that the coolies have dug the graves,’ Ocker says. ‘Before we all march over there and tuck these coves in.’

‘The what?’ says Fuller. ‘Coolies?’

‘Y’know – little Chinese fellas,’ Ocker puts a finger to the corner of his eyes and pulls the skin tight.

‘Well he’ll be lucky,’ Jack says, ‘after what happened yesterday.’

‘Wha— why?’ Fuller shrugs. ‘What happened yesterday?’ ‘Later, sunshine.’ Ocker slaps a hand on Fuller’s shoulder.

‘When you’re older.’

‘I’m bloody nineteen I am!’

‘Yeah, yeah – and I’m the King o’ the flamin’ Belgians.’ ‘Come on,’ says Mac, folding up his handkerchief. ‘Put us all

out of our misery. What did happen yesterday, Jack?’ ‘A Chinaman were murdered,’ Jack says. ‘That’s all.’ ‘Murdered?’

‘Aye, lad, killed.’

‘The fate you took so much trouble to avoid, son,’ Mac mutters.

‘But?’

‘Aye. An’ now they’re all confined to barracks at De Clijte until they catch the bugger that did it.’

‘Then what, Jacko? What’ll they do to him?’ ‘Shoot ’im, I reckon.’

‘Shoot him?’

‘Someone really ought to tell the coolies that the flamin’ war is over,’ Ocker laughs. ‘Don’t you think?’

‘Poor wee beggars.’ MacIntyre stuffs the tartan handkerchief back into his tunic pocket. ‘Have yer no seen the conditions they’re working under?’

‘Poor flamin’ fools, more like,’ says Ocker.

‘Never mind all that now, lads,’ Jack interrupts. ‘We’re wasting precious time here. Townend’s going to be at least half an hour before he finds out what’s actually happened. He’ll be expecting t’Chinks to have dug t’graves ready for this lot.’

‘So he’s got a bit of a surprise coming.’

‘Aye. Now, what about Ingham? Anyone know where he’s off to?’

‘Well he won’t be digging no graves!’ says Fuller. ‘Not officially, anyway.’

‘Nah, he’s gone to fetch the sky pilot,’ Ocker tells them. ‘If he can find one, that is. So, anyway, I reckon, as that’s Ingham and Townend taken care of . . .’

‘What?’

‘I reckon we’ve time for a beer, if we’re quick about it. What d’you think, Jacko?’

‘Why not,’ Jack says. ‘The local?’ The men all cheer. ‘The local!’

The ‘local’ – such as it is – is little more than a  wooden hut above the cellar of Monsieur Steenvan’s old café on the bombed-out corner of Station Straat and Malou Laan in Ypres. Not much to look at. Not that the men mind.

‘The crafty old bugger certainly seems to have a knack for making money,’ Ocker says. ‘Skittles off to Poperinghe within minutes of the Jerries taking over back in 1914 . . .’

‘Someone had to make sure the British Army’s thirst was quenched,’ Mac interrupts.

‘. . . and then as soon as the fighting’s over he’s back in Ypres like a shot staking the family’s claim on its old estaminet.’

‘Not that there was much left of it by then,’  says Jack. ‘There is now, though, ain’t there?’ Fuller says. ‘Thanks to us!’

‘Less of the “us”, sunshine.’

‘I ’elped him build it an’ all,’ Fuller protests. ‘You wasn’t the only ones scrounging bits of wood and old corrugated iron for him.’

‘Keep yer voice down, will yer,’ Jack hisses.

***

The subterranean world of cellars and crypts close to the railway station in Ypres is proving fertile soil for the new buildings that are rising from the city ruins. Entreaties from the British to leave the area untouched go ignored. Only round the ancient Cloth Hall and the cathedral is no building work allowed. A stencilled sign swings on a wire that surrounds the cordon sanitaire. A solitary guard nods as the men hurry past.

THIS IS HOLY GROUND

NO STONE OF THIS FABRIC MAY BE TAKEN AWAY IT IS A HERITAGE FOR ALL CIVILISED PEOPLES

‘Only the British Army could make a bloke stand guard over a pile of rubble,’ Ocker says to the sentry. ‘Worried the locals are going to pounce on you and rebuild the place while your back’s turned are you, mate?’

‘Actually, you know, that’s exactly what they are worried about,’ says Blake.

‘What’s that, mate?’

‘And he hasn’t even had a drink yet, either!’

‘Yeah, but don’t argue with him. He’s armed and dangerous, ain’t you, Blakey? Armed with that Bible that goes everywhere with ’im.’

But Blake is ignoring them. ‘I can think of no more beautiful monument to the dead . . .’ He stops for a moment, closing his eyes as he tries to remember the rest of the speech he has read in the papers.

‘What? No more beautiful monument than this old pile of stone?’

A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.

‘Blimey,’ Fuller laughs. ‘Who the hell said that?’ ‘Winston Churchill, actually.’

‘Oh, yeah?’ the boy says. ‘Has he ever seen the place?’

‘Aye, lad,’ Jack says. ‘Commanded one o’ the Jock battallions at Plug Street Wood. Isn’t that right, Mac?’

‘It is so.’

‘Well, either way, it’s just a heap of bleedin’ rubble now,’ says Fuller.

‘Oh, fair dinkum, mate, it’s a very nice pile of rubble!’ ‘Cleared a lot of it myself,’ says Jack. ‘And under fire, an’ all.’ ‘No doubt when this wee chicken-hertit callan’ – Mac turns, poking Fuller in the chest with his finger – ‘was still tied ti’is mammy’s apron strings.’

‘Me mam was ill,’ the boy snaps.

‘Aye, laddie, we know. She tied the apron strings tae tight.’

***

The men hurry down Boter Straat, turning left towards the Rijkswachtkazerne. A cart piled high with furniture squeaks down a narrow alley followed by an old dog with a limp. Heading into Station Straat, the men arrive at the door of the ‘local’. A painted sign above the door reads ‘British Tavern’, but Jack isn’t ordering drinks in English.

Zes pintjes, er . . . asjeblief?’ He removes his cap and walks up to the bar. Two locals in heavy coats look up briefly from a game of cards. Another customer smiles, but not at them. A young girl laughs before the woman serving turns and begins drawing down a jug of beer. ‘Hey, lass.’ Jack ruffles the girl’s dark hair. ‘What’s does little Françoise find so funny?’

‘You!’ the girl replies with a cheeky smile. Along the bar her elder sister Katia stands decanting a foaming mug of cloudy auburn liquid from a pewter jug. A line of chipped earthenware tankards stands waiting in a row along the wooden counter. Katia knows Jack’s order, however he chooses to say it.

The bar of what was once a modest family hotel is little more than a low trestle table set before a row of wooden barrels. The larger casks tilt forward slightly on the cracked stone floor. Wine flasks with brass taps squat on the shelf above, together with a few old, unlabelled bottles. ‘Why do you try to speak Flemish?’ the little girl asks. Jack takes the first of the mugs the barmaid has filled and closes his eyes, taking a long, slow drink.

‘Why not?’ He licks the moustache of foam from his lips. ‘It is grappig, that’s all.’

‘Funny? What, me saying it in t’first place?’ Jack says. ‘Or the way I say it?’

‘Both,’ Françoise replies, wrinkling her nose.

‘Well,’ Jack shakes his head and pouts. ‘That’s a fine way to encourage a chap who’s trying his best to learn the local lingo.’

‘Don’t be sad!’ the girl looks up him at him.

‘How could I be sad,’ Jack smiles, picking Françoise up and spinning her round, ‘with thee here to make me laugh. Friends?’ Jack puts the girl down and offers her his hand. ‘Vrienden?

‘Vrienden!’ the girl smiles.

‘Now, Françoise’ – he passes her the tray – ‘be a good girl an’ take these over to the men, will yer? I just want to have a quick word with your big sister.’ The girl curls her fingers round the edges of the tray, without once taking her eyes off the beer. ‘Steady now!’ Jack calls. ‘Be careful, lass. Them lads is thirsty!’

‘You should not ask her to do that, Jacques.’ The older girl is standing watching, smiling, idly circling a tea towel on the bar. ‘She is too young.’

‘She’s not!’ Jack says. ‘I were doing more than carrying trays when I were her age, I reckon.’

The woman smiles and shakes her head. ‘I think I can imagine!’

‘Anyway, how else is a fella going to get a moment to himself with—’

Bier alsjeblieft!’ The young woman breaks off to serve another customer. Their brief conversation moves too fast for Jack to follow, but it is obvious that the man is something of a regular. She is getting him a glass Jack notices – a clean one, too.

‘Hey, Katia, geef me een kus!’ The man is dangling a crumpled banknote in the air like bait. As Katia reaches for the cash the man snatches it away, grabbing her wrist with his free hand.

Nee!’ the woman is struggling. ‘NEE!

He pulls her towards him and puckers his lips before looking around. But nobody else is laughing.

‘Cheers!’ Jack leans across and clinks his mug – hard – into the man’s round, stemmed glass, spilling some of the beer. ‘Cheers, yer fat Belgian bastard.’

‘Cheers?’ the man looks puzzled for a moment. ‘Cheers?

Vaar kom je vandaan?

Hij komt uit Engeland.’ Katia is smoothing down her apron and replacing a pin in her hair.

‘Ah, English!’ the fat stranger shouts. ‘You are English.

Tommy?’

‘No – Jack.’

‘Ha, ha – erg grappig. Very funny.’

Françoise, ga in de rug en haal papa. Vertel hem de heer de Wulf hier.’

The girl trots off behind the counter to fetch her father while Katia resumes the slow, circular movement of the towel she is rubbing on the surface of the bar. Her hair, hurriedly pinned back after the brief exchange across the bar, still escapes in a few loose strands. Her cheeks are flushed with embarrassment and anger.

‘Hey, Jacko, you joinin’ us, mate?’

‘Ah, he’s too busy with the langue d’amour!’ ‘I’ll be along in a minute, lads.’

‘We haven’t got all day, you know.’

‘Yeah, come on, Jacko,’ Ocker says, bringing back the empty tray. ‘We’ve time for another if you’re quick about it.’

‘Blimey, that can’t have touched t’sides,’ Jack picks up one of the empty tankards.

‘Thirsty work, grave digging,’ says Ocker. ‘You should know that, Jacko.’

‘Love?’

Katia picks up the pewter jug. The barrels only travel a short distance by road from the brewery in nearby Poperinghe, but the beer is always lively. Monsieur Steenvan’s eldest daughter, as her father taught her, is taking great care filling each of the mugs in turn. But time and the men’s thirst are pressing.

‘Happen I’ll take these over,’ Jack tells her, putting the half-filled mugs on a tray. ‘Bring us the jug across later. We’ll top ’em up for ourselves.’

‘Hey, je negeert me – you are ignoring me.’ The fat man with the beer glass is turning to address the half-empty room. ‘They are ignoring me – Tommy and his girlfriend. Look at them.’ He laughs, making another grab for Katia’s hand, knocking the jug she is holding in the process. ‘Hey! Give that to me. I need a top-up, too.’

‘Look, mate, there’s a flamin’ queue here,’ Ocker says, elbowing past the man to help Jack with the tray.  ‘And  you’  –  he shoves the man away – ‘you’re at the back, you fat ugly bastard.’

Jack catches the stranger’s arm as he shapes to throw a punch, but he can’t prevent him sticking out a boot and send- ing Ocker, together with the beers, crashing to the floor. ‘Now that weren’t very friendly, was it?’ Jack pulls the man back, sharply.

‘Let go of my arm,’ he winces. But Jack’s grip tightens and he twists the man’s wrist, forcing the stranger to turn sharply in an attempt to unwind from the pain.

‘Leave this to me, Ocker lad.’ Jack shoves an arm up the man’s back, but Ocker is already scrambling to his feet and aiming a full-blooded punch at the fat man’s gut. As he doubles over, Ocker’s knee cracks hard into the man’s jaw through a cushion of soft flesh. Jack releases the grip on his wrist and the man goes sprawling across the wet floor.

‘No, please – stop!’ cries Katia, holding her hands to her face.

‘Come on, lads.’ Blake is standing up and flapping his arms. ‘Enough! No need for violence.’

But Ocker hasn’t finished. ‘You want your mates to know you’ve been in a proper fight, don’t you, cobber?’ He kneels beside him, lifting the man by the scruff of the neck and slapping his cheeks.

‘Smashed a perfectly good jug there too, Ocker. As well as spilling our beer.’

‘Reckon we ought to rub his fat face in that, Jacko. What do you think? After all’ – he lifts the man by the scruff of the neck again – ‘obviously missed the main event, didn’t you, mate?’

‘Too bloody fat to fight,’ says Jack. ‘Wouldn’t fit that gut in t’trenches.’

‘Come on now, lads, you’ve had your fun,’ Mac interrupts. ‘And I want my beer.’

Katia has turned away and is already filling up another jug. ‘That’s enough now, Ocker. Come on – the beer’s ready.’ Jack takes the fresh jug Katia has just filled and moves towards the table.

‘Enough? Mate, I’ve only just started!’

‘Later, Ocker. Leave it. You’ll have the redcaps on us if you aren’t careful.’

The fat man struggles to his feet, slipping on the wet floor but suddenly smiling as he drapes a heavy arm around Ocker’s shoulders. The few remaining customers in the tiny bar have fled, leaving their cards on the table. ‘We are all friends here, heh?’ the fat man is slurring. ‘Heh! Heh?’

‘Jeez, this guy’s a nutter,’ Ocker shakes his head. ‘You should’ve let me finish him off just now when I had the chance.’ Jack starts picking up the broken pottery shards, placing them back on the sticky tray. ‘Sorry, love. Tell your pa we’ll make it up to him. But he won’t miss that jug. Not when he sees what else he’s got coming to him.’ Katia calls to someone in the back room of the estaminet. ‘Scrounged a few elephants the other day. Some decent lengths o’ timber, too.’ ‘Elephants?’ She looks puzzled.

‘Aye, lass. Old sheets of iron just like them ones.’ He points to the ceiling. ‘I’m sure your pa will find a use for ’em. As well as all the other stuff.’

‘I can find a use for them,’ the fat man shouts, wiping his face on a handkerchief. ‘I can pay for them,’ he reaches in his jacket pocket for a wad of notes. ‘With this!’

‘They’re not for sale,’ Jack says.

‘Ha, Steenvan pays you in . . . beer, no?’ ‘No!’

‘Ah!’ He turns and winks at Katia. ‘Maybe la belle Katia is what you are after, eh?’

‘I’ve told you,’ Jack says, ‘they’re not for sale. ‘Not to you, anyhow.’

‘But, Jacques,’ Katia slowly shakes her head, ‘you don’t understand. Monsieur de Wulf is—’

‘Hey! Wat is er gaande?’ Her father appears at the curtained door between the small kitchen and the bar. His dark eyes flit round the room before noticing the broken pottery shards on the bar.

‘Katia!’ he shouts. ‘Wat gebeurt er?

Het was een ongeluk, papa,’ the girl spreads her hands and shrugs. ‘An accident . . .’

——————————————————————————

The Glorious Dead by Tim Atkinson is published by Unbound and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Unbound, Amazon and Waterstones. Many thanks to Tim for sharing this exclusive extract with us today, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising the tour. Tour stops continue until 09 November so please do check out other stops for more on the book. 

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Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! The Golden Orphans by Gary Raymond

Golden Orphans Cover ImageWithin the dark heart of an abandoned city lies a terrible secret…

Francis Benthem is a successful artist; he’s created a new life on an island in the sun. He works all night, painting elusive images at the request of his eccentric Russian benefactor. When he’s found dead his protege, the only attendant at the funeral, finds himself mixed up in a mysterious underworld that had previously entangled Benthem.

His quest to find out what happened to the Golden Orphans, and to uncover the private face behind the public mask that Illerian Prostakov wears, leads the reader into the thrilling, sometimes surreal world of an island like no other, deep into the troubled past of its people: a nation split in two by invasion and embattled by organised crime. 

Combining the dark foreboding of a thriller with the luscious prose of literary fiction, The Golden Orphans offers an atmospheric modern fable that combines mystery and surrealism on the sunshine and scenery of Mediterranean island of Cyprus. It’s an unusual combination and one that is a little outside of my usual comfort zone but, despite some initial misgivings about the combination of Russian gangsters, troubled artists and Cypriot sunshine, I greatly enjoyed the book and raced through its 155 pages.

Beginning at the poorly-attended funeral of Francic Bentham, the novel follows his un-named protege as he becomes gradually entrapped within the surreal world of enigmatic Russian Illerian Prostakov; a man obsessed by a single image that taunts him in his dreams. As our un-named painter struggles to interpret his strange benefactor’s visions, he becomes embroiled in the history of Cyprus itself, from its current problems with trafficking and gangsters to old divisions created during the Turkish invasion. And at the heart of it all lies a ghostly city and the mystery of the Golden Orphans. Gary Raymond has packed a surprising amount of plot into this slender volume but it never feels too much. Instead, the gradual layering of each new strand adds to the mystery and the strange, trance-like existence that our narrator experiences on the island.  It’s masterfully controlled and a testament to the strength of Raymond’s writing.

The setting is also beautifully realised and the hazy sunshine of Cyrus shines from every page. Lusciously written, Raymond provides the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that lure tourists to Ayia Napa every year, before peeling back the visage to reveal a hidden darkness lying underneath the glamorous parties and laid-back bars. The narrative also takes us back to the 1974 invasion of Cyprus, providing a fascinating glimpse of the derelict, abandoned spaces created by the establishment of the neutral zone in the wake of the conflict. The island really stars as a character in the book, providing a reality that our insecure, troubled narrator seems to lack at times. It’s an interesting contrast and, appropriately for a novel that so concerns itself with dreams and nightmares, adds to the dream-like quality to the narrative.

Given the accomplished setup and the numerous strands that Raymond weaves into a relatively slender novel, it was always going to be difficult to realise a fully rounded ending and, personally, I did find the final pages a little predictable and anti-climactic. That said, however, I don’t feel this is a novel that should be read simply to get to the end. Instead, it’s a journey that is designed to be savoured on each page. With a carefully crafted atmosphere, a deep sense of place, and a dark, foreboding overtone, The Golden Orphans combines shades of Graham Greene with the tension of Patricia Highsmith to provide a smart, taut literary thriller perfect that punches well above the weight that its slender format would suggest.

The Golden Orphans by Gary Raymond is published by Parthian and is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Emma from Damp Pebbles Blog Tours for inviting me onto the tour and organising everything! 

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Seasonal Reads

Spooky Reading Recommendations

The leaves are changing, the nights are drawing in, and it’s time to drag that favourite  jumper out of the closet. Is any more of an excuse needed to settle down with a mug of tea, curl up under your favourite blanket and pick up a book? And, for me personally, if that book has a touch of the sinister about it – something that’ll send a slight chill down my spine despite all that cosiness – then even better! So without further ado here are five of my favourite chilling reads, plus a few choices that I’m hoping to get to during 2018’s season of spookiness.

584843I can’t talk about spooky books without mentioning The Woman in Black. Susan Hill has written a number of ghost stories but this, without a doubt, remains my favourite. Possibly this is because I first read the book one dark All Hallows Eve, curled up in a caravan on the wet and wild Welsh coast whilst the rain lashed on the roof and the wind howled outside. Talk about pathetic fallacy! Having re-read the book many times in considerably finer weather since however, I can attest to it being an extremely fine ghost story with just the right level of menace. Arthur Kipps’ visit to desolate Eel Marsh House and his glimpses of the vengeful woman in black remain utterly terrifying on even the brightest of days.

8350864More readily known for her young adult series, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, Michelle Paver has also written two chilling ghost stories after the Gothic mould. My favourite of the two, Dark Matter, is set during an ill-fated expedition to Arctic and brilliantly adds chilling events to an even colder location. Her second, Thin Air, takes place during a similarly doomed mountaineering expedition. Both books play with ideas of repression and psychology, cleverly weaving the characters’ fears into the narrative so that the reader begins to doubt the veracity of their narratives. Paver is also excellent at using the stark yet dangerous beauty of the natural environment to great effect when creating her sinister tales.

36434359Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions, which I reviewed at the start of the year, is an unsettling gothic chiller that will leave you curled up under the covers and peering into the shadows. Part ghost story, part psychological mystery, the book uses interweaving narratives from the 1600s and 1800s to unravel the unhappy tale of the wooden companions that haunt crumbling country estate The Bridge, with possibly sinister intent.  Plus it has a really creepy child in it and nothing says dark and disturbing quite as much as childish innocence gone bad.

10692Moving away from ghost stories for a moment, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a brilliant romp which combines the gothic horror of Dracula with the country-hoping adventure of a Dan Brown thriller. Late one night when exploring her father’s study, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters ominously addressed ‘To my dear and unfortunate successor’. When her father goes missing, our unnamed narrator is forced into an epic cross-continental quest that takes her into the heart of Romania, uncovering the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s disappearance, and constantly coming up against the name of one Vlad Ţepeş. As you can probably tell from the synopsis, The Historian is a bit of a romp but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable one written in a high gothic style and with plenty of literary and historical references for Dracula fans.

6550482For those who like their horror to come with a more literary flavour, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger combines Waters masterful prose with a dash of the supernatural. Set in the crumbling Hundred Hall, the novel follows the provincial, middle-class Dr Faraday as he gradually integrates himself into the life of the once wealthy Ayres family. Struggling to keep up with a changing society, the Ayreses are haunted by past glories. But are they also being haunted by something more sinister than their dying way of life? Combining a thoughtful meditation on class in post-war Britain with a creeping sense of dread and a fantastically creepy atmosphere, this is a slow, understated chill of a novel with a fantastic twist in its tale.

So what is on The Shelf’s spooky TBR for this season? Having still not got around to Laura Purcell’s latest chiller, The Corset, I’m eager to pick that up. Sarah Perry’s latest slice of gothic, Melmoth, is also on the pile – I loved The Essex Serpent so much that I’m almost afraid to read it! I’m taking part in the blog tour for SJI Holliday’s psychological ghost story The Lingering in November so am also very much looking forward to reading that, especially given all the high praise it has been getting from fellow bloggers. Finally Katherine Clements’ The Coffin Path picked up a lot of praise on its release last year but remains unread so I’m hoping to get to that now that the season is appropriate again.

As always, I would love to know if you’ve read any of my recommendations – or any of my TBR books. I do love a good ghost or supernatural story so if you’ve got any chilling recommendations for me then do also drop me a line in the comments, or come say hi over on Twitter (@amyinstaffs), and let me know about them!

Happy Reading!!

 

Discussion Time · Random Bookish Things

DISCUSSION TIME! The ‘Value’ of Blogging

There’s been quite a bit of collective ire on social media this week after a independent publisher (who shall remain nameless!) called into question the ‘reach’ and ‘influence’ of book bloggers, especially in relation to blog tours and whether they result in better sales and exposure for the book/author/publisher in question.

Many people felt that it was implied in the publisher’s comments that book blogs and blog tours don’t offer good ‘value’ for authors and publishers. As you can probably predict, many bloggers and tour organisers felt that this belittled their role in the book world and took the publisher in question to task over their comments. Other publishers and authors also raced to the defence of bloggers with positive examples of how the work of bloggers had helped promote their titles.

As someone who writes a relatively small blog – and could therefore be accused of having limited ‘reach’ and ‘influence’ as a blogger – I thought the furore raised some interesting questions about the role of blogging. This post is, I suppose, my reflections on this and an attempt to counter some common misconceptions about the life of a book blogger as I see it.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, I can categorically say that there are far easier ways to get free books than by becoming a blogger!

Bloggers have to work for their freebies. If we’re lucky enough to receive a requested book or be invited onto a tour, we have to read said book, actively engage with what we’ve read (often by making notes as we read), and then compose and edit a (hopefully) entertaining and informative post about it. If this is for a blog tour, we’ll have to do this for a specific date. If not, having the post ready for around a book’s publication date is considered polite so a loose deadline remains in place. And the work isn’t over yet folks! Once a post is live, a blogger will probably want to promote it on social media channels, and ensure their review is also up on Goodreads, Amazon, Netgalley etc. And they may well be engaging with and promoting other posts from the same blog tour, or for the same author/book. They may also choose to re-post when the book subsequently comes out in paperback or if it wins an award.

And, for the most part, they will be doing this whilst holding down a day job, getting the kids to school, doing the laundry and all the other sundry activities that make up everyday life. In short, this is all being done on a blogger’s free time.

So whilst there may be the odd ‘blagger’ out there who thinks a book blog is a great way to bag a ton of hot pre-release titles, I think they’d soon find there’s a bit more to it than that.

I mean, the above is just what you do once you have established yourself as a blogger. Setting up and starting out is a whole different type of work. It can take months – or even years – to establish your blog, develop your online presence, and make connections with authors, publishers and tour organisers. Very few publishers or tour organisers worth their salt will take on an untested blogger – they want to see you have a track record of regular posts and can provide a certain quality and consistency of content before they add you to their tour or mailing lists, especially for popular or high-profile titles.

Which brings us onto this idea of ‘value’. What can your blogger do for you?

Simply put, I think it’s hard to qualify a blog’s ‘reach’ and ‘influence’, especially over the course of what may be just a one or two week blog tour. ‘Reach’ and ‘influence’ are subjective and I suppose that, from my point of view, an author or publisher has to recognise that a blog post or blog tour may not necessarily equate to hordes of readers racing to their nearest bookshop waving armfuls of cash. But does any advertising campaign really do that?

Personally I feel that what we as bloggers offer is less immediately measurable but equally important – genuine enthusiasm for your book, a wish to shout about it to our online (and real life) communities, and an opportunity to increase presence. A presence that, crucially, sticks around long after the tour is over and continues bubbling away as we write more posts and gain more followers.

When I look at my stats page for The Shelf, I’m often surprised (and extremely pleased!) by how many people are still reading posts that I wrote months ago. As I was writing up this post, I had a hit on my review of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions – a post that I wrote back on 08 January 2018. If that reader goes and buys Laura’s book as a result of my post (and I sincerely hope they do – it’s a brilliant book), it could be argued that I had an influence on them. However that influence could not have been measured at the time of the post going live – or even in the immediate weeks afterwards.

I suppose ultimately what I’m trying to get at is the idea of assessing a blog’s ‘value’ is, to my mind, looking at it all wrong. Blogs and bloggers are, for the most part, lovers of books who wish to communicate that love to the world. The infectious enthusiasm that we have for sharing books may not be immediately measurable in terms of pounds and pence. But in terms of helping to build a buzz or develop a profile – less quantifiable goals but increasingly important to publisher and authors in our digital age – blogs and their associated social media presences are vital ways of getting the word out. And I’m sure there are blog tour organisers and publishers out there who can provide evidence of when this has then translated into sales.

By necessity, this post is a very brief overview of some very complex debates. I haven’t, for example, really touched on the role of blog tour organisers because I feel there are others working in that role who can outline that far better than I can – the wonderful Anne Cater, for example, put up a fantastic Twitter thread that persuasively (and passionately) argued in favour of bloggers, blog tours and tour organisers. Nor have I looked at the need for publisher support and promotion in relation to blog posts and tours, or the fact that many bloggers are avid readers and purchasers of books before they even start writing about them.  And I’ve stayed well clear of the thorny issue of  receiving ‘free’ books and ‘professional integrity’ which is a whole different ball game and one that has been ably discussed by Drew over at The Tattooed Book Geek here.

I do hope however that this post has provided some food for thought. I can only speak for myself but I don’t run The Shelf as anything other than a passion project. I aim to be professional but, ultimately, The Shelf isn’t my business – it’s my downtime. If I have ‘influence’ and can get the word out there about books I love then that’s great but I didn’t start doing this to be influential. I’m doing it because I love books and I love writing about books and having conversations about books and authors that I love with like-minded bookish folk like you.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts so please do drop me a comment down below or come say hi over on Twitter. And, until next time…

Happy Reading! x

Random Bookish Things · Reading Digest · Reading Horizons · Reviews

What I Read On My Holidays

Given that I’m currently drowning in a sea of MA reading, and laid low with a nasty bout of Fresher’s Flu (which is an absolute joy at the age of 32 I can tell you), my holiday seems but a distant memory. A mere month ago however and I was enjoying a wonderful, book-filled week on the Welsh coast with the long-suffering husband. I normally do a short post about what I’m intending to read on my hols before I go but, as September was quite busy on The Shelf with blog tours, I thought it might be nice to do a wrap-up and some mini-reviews of what I actually read instead.

36203369I kicked off the week with a book about the Spanish Flu. Holiday reading! Yes, I know it might not seem like the most relaxing of topics but Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney had come highly recommended by a bookseller in my local Waterstones and is exactly the sort of narrative social history that I enjoy hoovering up every once in a while. Although slightly terrifying (it is amazing how much we still don’t understand about the flu virus and how incredibly vulnerable to new strains of flu we remain), Pale Rider was also a fascinating examination of human ingenuity and resilience in the face of a terrible threat. That such an incredibly destructive epidemic has become so little-known about in the modern world is something that Spinney attempts to unpick, as well as evaluating why certain countries and communities fared better than others during the outbreak. Whilst I’m sure anyone well versed on the Spanish Flu epidemic would probably struggle to find anything new here, for a lay reader like myself it was a fascinating introduction and a timely reminder of human vulnerability.

39712864Seeking something a little more light-hearted than viral epidemics, I then turned to my book club’s October choice, Heartburn by Nora Ephron. This darkly acerbic tale of a pregnant woman who discovers her beloved husband is in love with a woman who has “a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb” had me laughing out loud and regularly reading passages aloud to my (considerably less amused) husband. If I’m being completely honest, there is nothing essentially new in Ephron’s ‘comic’ tale of a marriage breakdown and the resulting mid-life crisis it brings about in her heroine. What sets the book apart however is Ephron’s strong voice, which grabs you on page one and doesn’t let up until it leaves you – red-cheeked and sides sore from laughing – on the final page. As a commentary on marriage and relationships, I have issues with Ephron’s conclusions but, as a short, sharp stab of wit and amusement, I think it’s a little slice of delight that would be perfect for fans of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette.

35720337Returning to more sombre territory (my aching sides needed a chance to recover), and inspired by the desolate beauty of the surrounding Welsh landscape, I finally picked up Jon McGregor’s Costa award winning novel Reservoir 13. Unfolding over the course of thirteen years, the novel examines the impact of a tragedy on a small village community, starting with a teenage girl going missing in the hills just before New Year. McGregor writes beautifully about the small, everyday rhythms of country life, alternating between the natural cycle of the years and the unfolding dramas of the village and its citizens. A lyrical, elegiac read, this was definitely a case of right place, right time, right book for me – sitting looking out on the sparse beauty of the Cambrian Mountains, I felt utterly absorbed in McGregor’s slow-moving but vividly painted world. Definitely a novel that rewards considered reading and will leave you reflecting long after you turn the final page.

40236461Throughout the holiday I was listening to The World of Lore: Wicked Mortals, written and read by Aaron Mahnke. If you’re into folklore, legends and superstition, Lore is a bi-weekly podcast that covers the strange and unexplained. Like a good fireside tale told on a dark night, it has an ability to send a shiver down your spine whilst keeping you listening. Wicked Mortals is the second in the World of Lore series; a compilation of some of the best tales from the podcast, this time focusing on some of the chilling individuals who have achieved enough notoriety to become part of folklore. Whilst I didn’t enjoy the tales in this as much as I did in the first volume (Monstrous Creatures), the production values remained high with some beautiful background music and Mahnke’s steady, eerily calm narrative perfectly capturing the chill in his sinister stories.

38355634I finished off by settling into Claire Fuller’s latest novel Bitter Orange, a sinister tale centred on a dilapidated mansion in the English countryside and the events that take place there one hot summer in 1969. Prim narrator Frances is immediately captivated by handsome architect Peter and his wild, vivacious girlfriend Cara. Over the course of the summer they become friends, whiling away their days exploring the lost grandeur of Lyntons. As the three become closer however, secrets and lies abound and the novel gradually unpicks the fault lines in our relationships and the stories we tell about our lives. The pace of Bitter Orange was sedate – nothing much actually happens for a great deal of the novel – but the tension is gradually coiled like a spring page by page and, when it does snap, the payback is ever the greater for it. Not a novel of grand gestures or dramatic moments, Fuller’s writing instead focuses on the small, seemingly insignificant moments that hold the key to our interactions – a gesture, a word unsaid, an over the shoulder glance that could mean one thing, could mean another. It’s a style that won’t be to everyone’s taste but it’s masterfully done here, as Fuller takes a thread and gradually pulls at it until the whole intricate web she has woven comes tumbling down around her characters. A measured, sinister read with shades of Patricia Highsmith and Daphne Du Maurier. If we can also take a moment to appreciate that cover which is absolutely stunning.

So there you go, five mini-reviews for the price of one blog post – I do spoil you all sometimes! Please do let me know if you’ve read any of these books – or are intending to read them – as I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can drop me a line in the comments, or say hi over on Twitter @amyinstaffs. I’ll be back soon with more book chat but, until next time….

Happy Reading! x

 

 

Random Bookish Things · Reading Horizons

A Little Update

It feels like I’ve been away from the blog for an absolute age, although in reality my last post was only just over a week ago. However, as I was on holiday the week before that, I’d prepped and scheduled my three previous blog posts in advance so, for me, it’s been about a month since I’ve done any serious writing for The Shelf. So hello again and I hope you’ve all been good while I’ve been away.

And since then so much has happened! Books have been read, new books have been purchased and, crucially, I’ve started an MA in English Literature. Yes, I’ve jacked in the day job (the full-time one anyway; part-time employment still being required to keep bread on the table) and thrown myself back into student life to improve my mind via extensive reading. Mr Darcy would surely approve.

And extensive reading it most certainly is! I may be remembering my undergraduate years through rose-tinted spectacles and with 14 years distance but I’m sure I had far more free time to spend in the pub last time around. I certainly developed a mean enough game of pool to suggest that I spent a great deal of time there. Now I’m up to my eyeballs in reading – novels, plays, critical essays, secondary reading, supplementary reading. It’s both incredibly exciting (which book nerd doesn’t want an excuse to read all day) and mildly terrifying (I’m sure I read slower than I used to. Either that or time has sped up since I was 18).

My course started last week and, consequently, I’ve been going at a million miles an hour since then find a rhythm to study, getting used to not being part of the 9-5 whilst still having the workload of 9-5, and marvelling at how incredibly young all the undergraduates look (seriously, they’re about 12…). Which has left me without a proper post this week, hence you’re stuck with my mad rabblings instead.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying apologies for not having a holiday reading post to share with you today. I did read some excellent books whilst I was away and a review post will be forthcoming shortly to share my thoughts on them with you. I’ve also got some great blog tours lined up for November, as well as a spooky recommendations post in the works for Halloween. And, if anyone is interested, I’ll talk a little more about what books I’m studying this semester as well.

With the autumn colours starting to show and the nights drawing in, it’s the perfect time to be curling up with a book (or a play, or a critical essay!) so do let me know what you’ve all been reading and, until next time…

Happy Reading! x