Reviews

REVIEW: Dear Mrs Bird by A. J. Pearce

Mrs BirdSometimes a book comes along at just the right moment in life. This was the case with Dear Mrs Bird, a spirited wartime romp that I read back in cold, wet November when my spirits needed A Jolly Good Talking To (as Mrs Bird herself would advise).

Set in 1940s London and with the Luftwaffe making nightly raids overhead, Emmeline (Emmy) Lake dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent. So when she seeks a job advertised at an impressive newspaper, she promptly quits her existing job and applies. Only it turns out the job isn’t for the newspaper at all but as secretary to the fearsome Henrietta Bird, acting editoress and redoubtable agony aunt at failing women’s magazine Woman’s Friend.

Mrs Bird’s requirements are very clear: letters containing any form of Unpleasantness must go straight in the bin. And Mrs Bird’s list of Unpleasantness is very long indeed. As Emmy finds herself dismissing letters from love-lorn, grief-stricken and morally confused readers in favour of those asking for a good rationing recipe or help with unsightly ankles, she decides the only thing to do is to write back to the conflicted readers herself.

Make no mistake, this book is a romp through and through. To start with, I even wondered if it was a pastiche because there’s just so much sugar in Emmy – she’s the epitome of the Blitz spirit and, as a result, her narrative voice is very Famous Five jolly hockey sticks and lashings of ginger beer. Stick with it though because, behind all the mustn’t grumble stiff-upper lip is an irresistibly funny and very moving novel about friendship, growing pains and the importance of being kind.

I loved Emmy as a character – she’s spirited and funny and a little bit daft. There’s also an eclectic supporting cast from Emmy’s sarcastic boss to her sensible best friend Bunty – and not forgetting the formidable Mrs Bird herself of course, who never speaks when she can shout and never shouts when she can bellow.

Underneath all the high-jinks though, there’s a real sense of daily life in wartime London, both from Emmy’s own experiences and the letters of the readers she responds to. As the book progresses, Emmy begins to realise that you can’t always rely on Keeping Your Chin Up and Carrying On Regardless. There’s some particularly evocative descriptions of the blitz that, for me, are only rivaled by those I read in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. And there’s definitely sections of the book that made me cry just as much as other parts made me laugh out loud – the deft lightness of touch that allows the story to work on so many levels is a real compliment to the author, especially as this is a debut.

Overall though, this is a heart-warming and spirited read that would be perfect for anyone who enjoyed Eva Rice’s The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. Yes, at times it’s so quirky that it verges on the twee but some books you read for pure pleasure and this is most definitely one of them. Heart-warming and irresistible, this is a warm hug of a book that’s perfect for cheering dull spirits and brightening a wet, cold afternoon.

Dear Mrs Bird by A. J. Pearce is published by Picador Books on 05 April 2018 in hardback and ebook. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley for providing an advanced eproof in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

 

Advertisements
Book Tags

The 20 Questions Book Tag

March has been a busy old month for reviews and blog tours on The Shelf so I thought a change of pace in the form of a book tag might be nice this weekend. This one was created by buydebook over on Goodreads and seemed like a lot of fun.

1. How many books is too many books in a series?

I prefer standalones to series – asking me to read your unfinished seven book fantasy epic is asking me to enter into a long-term reading relationship (yes, I’m looking at you George R R Martin) and I’m just not sure I’m ready for that kind of commitment in my reading life right now. As a general rule of thumb, if it’s more than three books long, I want to know that it’s REALLY good before I start it. Series with books that can be read as standalones, as with Agatha Christie or Terry Pratchett, are an exception to this rule however, as is Harry Potter.

2. How do you feel about cliffhangers?

Depends on how they’re done. I find a lot of the time they’re included just for the sake of it (and to generate hype for the next book in a series) which I think is…a bit of a cheap shot if I’m being honest. I prefer it when each book wraps up it’s own story but manages to show that there’s more to develop in the next one in the series. Kudos to J K Rowling for getting this absolutely right with HP.

3. Hardback or paperback?

Paperback, always. Just so much easier to read and carry around with you. That said, nothing is as nice as a gorgeous special edition hardback on a bookshelf. And always, always print over ebook. My Kindle is useful when I’m on the go but a physical book will always be my first love.

4. Favourite book?

The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien. The one book I regularly re-read and I never fail to get sucked into the world that Tolkien builds. And yes, I know it has dull bits and there’s far too much singing at times; but I shall love it forever despite its flaws.

5. Least favourite book? 

Can’t say I have one. If I don’t like a book, I generally either don’t finish it or don’t remember much about it!

6. Love triangles, yes or no?

Again, depends on how they’re handled. If we’re going down the Bella/Edward/Jacob route from Twilight, it’s a red flag (in fact, you can include most things about Twilight in my list of red flags – sorry Twilight fans but it wasn’t in my wheelhouse) but if we’re looking at a Willoughby/Brandon/Marianne from Sense & Sensibility sort of situation then the romantic tension can really add to the story.

7. The most recent book you’ve read that you just couldn’t finish?

Prisoner of Tehran  by Marina Nemat. It was my book club’s choice for March but I just didn’t like the writing style at all so I only made it about three chapters in. Everyone else loved it though so who am I to judge?

8. A book you’re currently reading?

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan. It’s fantastic.

9. Last book you recommended to someone?

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara. One of my friends is a true crime fan and I think she’ll devour this, despite the dark subject matter. Just so well written, researched and balanced.

10. Oldest book you’ve read (by publication date)?

Probably Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain. Or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, although it’s debatable as to when that was ‘written’.

11. Newest book you’ve read (by publication date)?

Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce – it’s not published until 05 April 2018! Review coming very soon (heads up, it’s wonderful)

12. Favourite author?

As Loki would say “it varies from moment to moment”!

13. Buying books or borrowing books?

Both! I’m increasingly making use of my local library however, in an effort to save funds – so at the moment, I’m probably more of a borrower.

14. A book you dislike that everyone else seems to love?

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. So many people loved this one but found the narrator more unlikeable than unreliable and I guessed the ending about a third of the way in. Plus can we stop calling grown women ‘girls’ in book titles please?

15. Bookmarks or dog-ears?

Dogs-ears? Sacrilege! Bookmarks all the way for me.

16. A book you can always re-read?

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I love all of Jane’s novels but this one merits repeated reading. Each time I read it, I get another layer of her bookish in-jokes. Plus Henry Tilney is just delicious isn’t he? In my dream film cast, he’s played by Tom Hiddleston…

17. Can you read whilst listening to music?

Only classical. I have a playlist of music that doesn’t have any words – it’s a mix of film music, video game scores and classical music, and I listen to it when I’m reading and also when I’m writing.

18. One POV or multiple POV?

I don’t have an especial preference for either, although I do think if you’re going to move between multiple characters’ heads, you need to have a reason why you’re doing that.

19. Do you read a book in one sitting or over multiple days?

Usually over multiple days. With the demands of the day job, the household and the occasional need to have a social life, opportunities to read books in one sitting are few and far between.

20. Who do you tag?

Everyone! I love reading other people’s responses to book tags so if you like the look of this one, please do join in!

I’d also love to have your answers to any of the questions above in the comments down below, or come say hi over on Twitter! I’ll be back next week with another book review but, in the meantime…

Happy Reading! x

Author Q&A · Blog Tours

BLOG TOUR Q&A!! We Were the Salt of the Sea by Roxanne Bouchard

SALT OF THE SEA cover vis_previewI am delighted to welcome Roxanne Bouchard to The Shelf today to discuss her dark, poetic crime thriller We Were the Salt of the Sea, her first novel to be published in English and to feature Detective Joaquin Moralès.

As Montrealer Catherine Day sets foot in a remote fishing village and starts asking around about her birth mother, the body of a woman dredges up in a fisherman’s nets.  Detective Sergeant Joaquin Moralès, newly drafted to the area from the suburbs of Montreal, barely has time to unpack his suitcase before he’s thrown in the deep end of the investigation. 

On Quebec’s outlying Gaspé Peninsula, the truth can be slippery, especially down on the fisherman’s wharves. Interviews drift into idle chit-chat, evidence floats off with the tide and the truth lingers in murky waters…

—————————————————————

Welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books Roxanne! We Were The Salt of the Sea is your first novel to be translated into English. Could you tell us a little about the book? 

We Were the Salt of the Sea is the story of a village on the Gaspé Peninsula in rural, coastal Quebec, a village haunted by nostalgia for the heyday of fishing that wakes up to tragedy one morning when a local fisherman, Vital Bujold, finds the body of a woman, Marie Garant in his net. Marie Garant lived a nomadic life aboard her sailboat and was on her way back from a trip down south. Her sailboat is then found a few kilometres east of the village near the Banc-des-Fous, a sand bar offshore where she had anchored overnight.

Marie was a woman who once tied many a man’s heart in knots and still manages to embroil Detective Moralès, who’s new to the area from the big city, in a tangle of fishing tales in his search for the truth. I think he earns himself a generous shot of rum!

I’m thrilled that my translator, David Warriner, chose this novel to pitch to Orenda Books, and that Orenda jumped right onboard, because it’s very Québécois. Not just the places, but the description of the characters and the language they use too. I’m over the moon with all this.

The novel is on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. Why did you feel it was important to set the novel in that particular location? And how did the setting inform your writing? 

Gaspésie is a long way away from the urban centres in Quebec, and people tend to forget that a coastal Quebec exists. People see the Gaspé as a place to go on holiday, and not many novels tend to be set there. So a few years ago, I went out there and decided to spend a while in a small village, Caplan, and talk to the people there. I found a calm sense of peace washing over me when I got there, and that’s what led me to want to write about it and start researching a novel.

I love working from a theme. When I was in Caplan, the fishermen really opened up to me and told me all their fishing stories. I don’t know if it’s the same in England, but here, fishermen love to exaggerate, and their fish get longer every time they tell the story! I found it all very endearing. So I started to think about what kind of story I could craft around the central theme of lies. Why not an intrigue around a detective in search of the truth? That’s where the idea came from of slowing down time for Moralès once he leaves the city behind and learns to embrace the people of the sea (fishermen and pleasure-boaters) and slowly uncover the truth in a secretive fishing village.

Your detective, Joaquin Moralès, is newly arrived from Montreal, as is Catherine Day. Did you feel it was important to have an outsider’s perspective into the Peninsula and, if so, why? 

Yes, because I’m not from the Gaspé myself. When Catherine Day arrives in the Gaspé, people tell her what she has to do to fall in love with that part of the world. When we travel somewhere new, we all dream a little, we hope someone will tell us where to go and give us the inside scoop on how the locals live. It struck me how that might be an interesting place to start for readers who knew nothing about the Gaspé.

For Detective Moralès, what fascinated me was how a man who grew up by the sea (he’s from Mexico) but turned his back on it by going to live in a land-locked suburb of Montreal for the better part of thirty years can find remnants of his past surging from deep within. Now he’s back on the coast, maybe he can feel something he’s lost, a desire to feel young again, a yearning for love and reckless abandon…

When we stand and look out to sea, we feel humbled by the power of the big blue and inspired by the infinite possibilities we see on the horizon. I tried to put all that into words by writing about people who are discovering or rediscovering the sea.

You’ve learnt to sail in the waters of the Gaspé Peninsula yourself and the sea is an important image in the novel. In what way was the book influenced by your experiences learning to sail? 

I learned to sail in a harsh environment, for sure! The St. Lawrence River is tricky to navigate, not just because of its cold waters, but also due to the complex currents and tides that lurk beneath the surface. I’ve never had my own sailboat, I’ve always crewed with other skippers on all kinds of waterways. Learning to sail is easy, if you believe all the posters in watersports schools advertising lessons, but I’ve had my fair share of challenges, believe me. Either because of the weather conditions or the people I went aboard with. I’ve experienced distance and solitude, but I’ve loved every experience I’ve had out there. I’ve learned how surprising the power of silence can be, how the sea can resolve many ills, and how honest it can make people be. And I’ve felt the magic of the wind swelling my sails. How could I not want to try and share all of that?

What was it like working with a translator? How much input, as the author, did you get in the translation process? 

For the last year while the novel has been in the works, I’ve been trying my best to learn English, but I’m sure you’re going to laugh at me when I try to string two words together in the UK! David Warriner is extraordinary. He’s intelligent, funny and passionate about what he does. He even went out to the Gaspé to meet the Gaspesians who so inspired me. He’s a man who drinks Champagne and does yoga every day! So while I haven’t properly read his translation yet, there’s no one I’d trust more to do my words justice.

Translator’s note from David: Roxanne was a joy to work with. When we sabred open a bottle of Champagne together she helped with a lot of background and was always happy to shed light on the questions about the local flavour and imagery I’d text her once in a while. There are so many layers of depth and poetry to her words I had to be sure I was rendering them the way she intended.

You are one of the few French-Canadian authors to be translated into English. Do you have any recommendations for readers keen to read more books set in Quebec? 

If you like detective novels, Chrystine Brouillet is renowned as the Queen of Crime Fiction chez nous, and her Maud Graham series shines the spotlight on beautiful Quebec City. And if you’re a fan of road trips, you have to read Jacques Poulin’s Volkswagen Blues. I don’t think Chrystine’s novels have been translated yet, though.

—————————————————

We Were the Salt of the Sea is available now and is the ideal literary crime thriller to curl up with – especially if you happen to have some champagne handy by the sounds of things! Or maybe some whisky if you want to channel your inner Detective Moralès…

Combining lyrical, poetic prose that is evocative of the sights and sounds of the Gaspé Peninsula with a taut and consuming mystery, this is a fantastic addition to any crime thriller fan’s TBR, especially those who like to indulge in a little armchair travelling alongside their reading.

Chrystine Brouillet’s Maud Graham series sadly hasn’t been translated into English as of yet but Volkswagen Blues is more readily available both in print and on Kindle.

A big thank you to Roxanne for answering my questions – and for David for being so kind as to translate the answers for me! Thanks must also go to my lovely friend Lettie for translating my questions – my GCSE French not being quite up the job!

We Were the Salt of the Sea by Roxanne Bouchard (translated by David Warriner) is published by Orenda Books and is available now as a paperback and ebook from all good booksellers including Hive, Amazon and Waterstones. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased feature, and to Anne Cater for organising the blog tour. The tour continues until 02 April so please check out the other stops on the way!

We Were The Salt of the Sea BT Banner

 

Author Q&A · Blog Tours

BLOG TOUR Q&A!! The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

thumbnail_The Dark LakeI am delighted to welcome Australian author Sarah Bailey to The Shelf today to talk about her page-turning debut thriller The Dark Lake.

A beautiful young teacher has been murdered, her body found in the lake, strewn with red roses. Local policewoman Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock pushes to be assigned to the case, concealing the fact that she knew the murdered woman in high school years before.

But that’s not all Gemma’s trying to hide. As the investigation digs deeper into the victim’s past, other secrets threaten to come to light, secrets that were supposed to remain buried. The lake holds the key to solving the murder, but it also has the power to drag Gemma down into its dark depths…

———————————————————-

thumbnail_Sarah Bailey Author PictureWelcome to The Shelf of Unread Books Sarah! The Dark Lake is your debut. Can you tell us a little about the book and how you came to write it? 

Thank you for having me! 

The Dark Lake is a police procedural with a heavy dose of character study. There is a murder to solve and that propels the narrative but along the way we learn a lot about the detective assigned to the case – Gemma Woodstock. Gemma knew the victim, high school teacher Rosalind Ryan. Both grew up in the regional Australian town of Smithson where the book is set and both are keeping secrets. As Gemma works with her colleagues to identify Rosalind’s murderer, these secrets are revealed. 

From memory, it was the character of Gemma that came to me first and then I built the story around her. She is a complex, layered person and I enjoyed teasing out the various elements of her past that have contributed to her manner and approach to life. 

I get most of my ideas when I am doing things like driving or watching TV and the basic plot for this story came to me on a long drive one evening after my kids fell asleep in the backseat. I wrote the first chapter that evening and definitely had a good feeling about the story even though I wasn’t clear how it would all come together. 

The novel focuses on two women, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock and her former classmate Rosalind Ryan and covers both their time together at high school and Gemma’s later investigation into Rosalind’s death. Did you deliberately set out to make the links between the two women underpin the novel? Did both women arrive in your head together or did one character develop first?

Gemma definitely arrived in my head first. I fairly quickly sketched out her physicality and her character and could see what motivated her and what made her feel insecure.  

This is where Rosalind came in. In many ways she is the opposite to Gemma, or at least she is in Gemma’s mind.  As the story runs in two timelines, a lot of the book explores how the past impacts the present and the butterfly effect that certain actions can have, even years later. I tried to manage the complex links between Gemma and Rosalind carefully as this really was the key to the narrative arc – hopefully I succeeded. 

The novel is filled with secrets, both in the past and the present timelines and there are a number of interweaving elements. How on earth did you keep everything together in your head? I’m envisaging some sort of enormous wall chart with connecting lines and arrows all over it..!

It did get a bit tricky at certain points. I found the first draft relatively straight forward, I didn’t plot much, I had the premise and a few key points to hit and then I just wrote.  

The editing however almost did me in! That’s when I almost had to pull apart my own story and wrangle it into shape. I had timelines, Post-It notes – all that stuff.  

I used to joke that while Gemma was staring at case boards and trying to solve Rosalind’s murder, I was in the same boat rearranging my Post-It notes and trying to make the book work!  

It’s often thought that crime fiction is a reflection of the culture and society that it’s written in and about. Was the small town setting a deliberate choice on your part? And in what ways did the setting impact on your writing of The Dark Lake?

I think small towns are increasingly interesting. As we all become more connected I feel like there will be a growing fascination with places that remain small and isolated.  

In The Dark Lake, the town of Smithson is as much a character as the people. I wanted readers to be able to feel the heat and experience the oppressiveness felt by Gemma as she railed against the small-town scrutiny and small mindedness. I enjoyed showcasing the irony of her feeling like she was trapped in such a wide, open place. 

From a writing perspective I really tried to make the environment as clear as possible so that people could picture the place that had shaped Gemma. 

The Dark Lake has been really well received in your native Australia, as well as in the US and Canada, and has been in the Barnes & Noble Best Books of 2017 list and a Book of the Month club pick. What’s it been like to as a debut author to see your novel out in the world and being taken up by readers? Was it a smooth process from writing the book to publication? 

It is a very strange feeling! Seeing the book online or in bookstores was surreal, especially at the start. A few weeks after the book came out in Australia a friend texted me a photo of someone reading the book on the bus and for some reason that really hit home. I think it just felt so genuine and real.  

I was fortunate to have quite a smooth publication journey for The Dark Lake. I queried an agent online (Lyn Tranter) and she was interested in the manuscript from the beginning. She provided me with a lot of useful feedback and suggestions which I took on board. Once she felt it was in a good place, she pitched it to publishers and it got picked up by Allen & Unwin which was incredible. 

So it was actually quite a quick process and I really enjoyed working with people on the book after plugging away on my own for so long. 

There is however a graveyard of old manuscripts on my laptop and I hate to think how many hours I spent working on ideas that have gone nowhere so it has taken quite a long time to get to this point and there has been a lot of false starts 

I feel very lucky and very glad that I persevered and finished the book – there were quite a few points I the process where it definitely could have gone the other way. 

Following the success of The Dry, Australian fiction seems to finally be getting some recognition here in the UK. Do you feel that Australian crime fiction differs in any way from its UK and US counterparts? Or is the love of a good mystery universal?

I think it is universal. I believe that all good stories draw on big human themes and challenge us in some way to confront our own emotions and study our own relationships. 

In saying that, I feel like there are different storytelling styles and certainly different settings and perhaps people are becoming more interested to see how the dry Aussie landscape enhances a murder mystery. Snow was all the rage a few years back so who knows what will be next – maybe the seaside?! 

It’s frustratingly difficult to get hold of antipodean books over here. For anyone keen to discover more, do you have any recommendations of antipodean authors in need of wider recognition? And do you have any favourite crime thriller authors who inspire your own work? 

There are so many Australian authors that I love! Kylie Ladd is very good as is Sally Hepworth. Mark Brandi and Ben Hobson both published amazing Australian stories last year as did Claire G Coleman. 

The Stella Prize is always worth checking out, they create a list of ‘must read’ titles by female Aussie authors every year. UK residents should be able to search for this online and then access the books fairly easily. 

Another favourite of mine is Michael Robotham who is the master of nailing a character led crime thriller. And Liane Morriaty can weave a story like no one else.  

Honestly though, I could go on for ever, there are a lot of talented Aussie writers! 

Outside of Australia I love Ruth Ware, Sarah Pinborough, Gillian Flynn – and one of my favourite books in recent memory is Noah Hawley’s Before The Fall. 

So what’s next for you? Is there more in store for Detective Sergeant Woodstock? 

 Yes, Gemma will definitely be back. I’ve just finished the final edits on the sequel which is called Into The Night. It follows on from The Dark Lake but is set almost three years later and quite a lot has happened in Gemma’s personal life since. She has moved to Melbourne and is navigating lots of new relationships – along with solving new murders of course!

It will be published in Australia this May and in the UK early in 2019. 

—————————————————————

The Dark Lake is available now and is perfect for fans of Jane Harper, with that page-turning, suspenseful quality that will grip you from the off and promises plenty of clever twists and turns along the way. With its brooding atmosphere and a female lead who has more than a few personal problems to deal with, it’s also reminiscent of the work of Claire Mackintosh and Gillian Flynn.

For anyone eager to follow up on Sarah’s recommendation and check out the current Stella Prize longlist, the list of titles can be found on their website here. Personally I’ve found Book Depository to be one of the better sites for getting hold of Australian fiction. An increasing number of antipodean books also seem to be being published on Kindle or in other ebook formats. If anyone has any other recommended sites for getting hold of books by Antipodean authors, please do drop a link in the comments below.

A big thank you again to Sarah for being kind enough to answer my questions! The blog tour for The Dark Lake has been running since 01 March so do go and take a look at some of the other posts for reviews, features and more!

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey is published by Corvus and is available now as a trade 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 feature, and to Anne Cater for organising the blog tour. 

The Dark Lake Blog Tour Poster

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!! Sunburn by Laura Lippman

35288850Creating unlikeable but sympathetic characters is a skill that I hugely appreciate as a reader because I find it genuinely difficult to finish a book populated by them. So many novels fall flat on their faces for me because they don’t quite walk that fine line between relatable yet difficult, and downright irritating. Not so Laura Lippman’s Sunburn which creates a compelling cast and narrative in spite of the essential selfishness of its protagonists.

Sunburn asks one important question: what kind of woman walks out on her family? One with nothing to lose and everything to hide as it turns out. One like Polly Costello. Or Pauline Hansen. Or whoever she decides to be when she next needs to move on with her life. Gregg picked up ‘Pauline’ in a bar three years ago because she had a restless, wildcat energy. But now she’s vanished – at least from the life that he and their daughter Jani will live. But he can follow her. To a new town, a new job and to a new ‘friend’, Adam Bosk, who thinks he has her figured out. But who is ‘Polly’ really and how many times has she disappeared before? And who are all the shadowy figures so interested in her whereabouts?

As you can probably tell, this is a novel that plays with ideas with identity, examining the pasts we create for ourselves, the futures we envisage and the baggage that gets thrown out the window on our way through life. Everyone in this book is hiding their real selves, creating new lives and obscuring unpleasant truths in an effort to create more promising futures for themselves.  It should make them all hideously unpleasant so it’s a testament to Laura Lippman’s writing that they’re so compelling and relatable instead.

Polly herself is the mainstay of the novel. Complex and difficult, she’s an unforgettable heroine who really drives the book forwards. Friendly one minute, cool the next; soft and open but with sharp edges that will cut anyone who gets too close, Polly feels like a living, breathing human being. She’s difficult, selfish and shallow in many ways but also loyal, intelligent and caring in others. And, as you uncover more about her troubled past, she becomes a character made by her experiences. She’s definitely the centre of the book, the sun around which all the other characters revolve and the human mystery that kept me turning the pages.

And everyone, I mean everyone, has their own agenda in this novel. From the private detective who definitely shouldn’t be getting involved with his mark; to the insurance broker trying to cover up his partnership with a corrupt cop, everyone is out for themselves and what they can get. Even the waitress at the dead-end diner that Polly rolls into is playing the hand she’s been dealt as best she can – even if that means resorting to blackmail. Selfish, shallow, self-absorbed – Lippman’s characters are all of these things but they’re also deeply, fatally human. Whether it’s loneliness, poverty, desperation or love, everyone in Sunburn has a driving force and a motivation that feels real. It’s a real accomplishment and it really sets the novel apart from many of the other noirish thrillers that I’ve read.

The plot itself is a meander more than a race. At just under 300 pages long, Sunburn isn’t a substantial read in terms of length but it feels weighty and there’s a deliberate steadiness in the pacing, a slow burn of tension that into a wildfire of actions and consequences towards the end. It’s not quite as page-turnery as other thrillers I’ve read but the pace suits the novel – this is a thriller that’s in tune with the steady, compelling narratives of classic noir and, as such, it rewards patient reading.

Filled with psychological complexity and narrative tension, Sunburn is an homage to the classic psychological noir of James M Cain but with dashes of Gillian Flynn and S J Watson, and is a worthy edition to any suspense thriller fans TBR pile.

Sunburn by Laura Lippman is published by Faber & Faber and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW! Conviction by Julia Dahl

ConvictionAs a village girl born and raised in leafy rural England, I’ve been to New York only once – for three sleep-deprived days at the end of a long summer camp season back in 2007. As a lone female traveller on a flying visit, I stuck pretty firmly to the tourist trail in Manhattan and got only the briefest of glimpses at the beat of the city’s heart beneath the tourist glitter.

Thanks to Julia Dahl’s latest novel Conviction however, I now feel as if I’ve had a peek beneath that surface and into the heart of a neighbourhood few tourists are likely to have explored.

Conviction, Julia’s third novel but her first to be published here in the UK, finds journalist Rebekah Roberts working of at New York’s sleaziest tabloid but dreaming of bigger things. When she receives a letter from a convicted murdered claiming his innocence, she sees a chance and, with a little investigation, uncovers a story she can’t ignore.

Twenty-two years earlier, in the wake of the notorious Crown Heights riots, when tensions ran high between the black and Jewish communities in Brooklyn, teenager DeShawn Perkins was convicted of the brutal murder of his adoptive family. No one wants to talk about that grim, violent time in New York City – not even Saul Katz, a former NYPD copy and Rebekah’s inside source. But are old wounds the only reason for the silence? As Rebekah investigates, she uncovers a tangled web of corruption, power and denial that may have dangerous implications for more people than just DeShawn.

I knew absolutely nothing about the history of Brooklyn and it’s complex cultural makeup before reading Conviction but Julia Dahl evokes it so well. Writing deftly about race, religion and local politics, she revealed a world that is as gritty and culturally complex as you would expect a melting pot like New York to be, and sheds light on some of New York’s closed communities.

Rebekah Roberts is a heroine made for just such a setting. Complex and nuanced but without falling into the trap of being a ‘strong female lead with issues’, you can’t help but root for her as she digs deeper into DeShawn’s case. By turns funny, sarcastic, morally righteous and world weary, I really felt for Rebekah when, towards the end of the book, she’s caught in a moral quandary between what is right and what is easy, torn between her loyalty to her family and the truth. Backed up by a supporting cast of equally nuanced characters and set amidst a realistic, living version of New York, Conviction is a novel that feels alive from the first page to the last and is highly recommended for anyone seeking a murder mystery for our turbulent times.

I mentioned at the start of this piece that this is Julia Dahl’s third novel but her first to be published in the UK. Although not obviously a sequel when reading, Conviction is the third outing for Rebekah Roberts and the events of Invisible City and Run You Down are alluded to briefly in Conviction.

On the strength of Conviction, I very much hope that Faber & Faber will publish Dahl’s first two books here in the UK also as I want to know more about Rebekah, her tense relationship with her mother Aviva and the community of Hasidic Jews that they come from. If they have the same compulsive page-turning quality, intelligent social commentary and sharp eye for detail as this book, I’ll probably devour those in two days as well!

Conviction by Julia Dahl is published by Faber & Faber and is available now as a paperback and ebook from all good bookseller and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones & Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

 

 

 

 

Reviews

REVIEW: The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn

32312859It must be exceptionally hard to be a debut thriller author at the moment. The current glut of psychological thrillers filling bookstore tables and supermarket shelves makes it a crowded marketplace and readers would be forgiven for getting a bit of fatigue when it comes to yet another ‘Girl’ or ‘Woman’ title in bold type against a moody backdrop. So it’s definitely worth noting when something genuinely gripping comes along and, for me anyway, A. J. Finn’s debut The Woman in the Window, certainly offered that.

Set almost entirely within one New York house, the novel’s protagonist is child psychologist Dr Anna Fox. Suffering from acute agoraphobia, Anna hasn’t set foot outside her house for the last ten months and she lives her life through a combination of the internet and her study window, self-medicating through her days on a dangerous combination of prescription drugs and alcohol. When new neighbours Alistair, Jane and Ethan Russell move in across the square, Anna is instantly drawn to them. Their picture-perfect family of three is an echo of the life that was once hers. But one evening a frenzied scream rips across the street and Anna witnesses something that no one was supposed to see. Now she must uncover the truth about what really happened. But even if she does, will anyone believe her? And can she even trust herself?

So far, so psychological thriller right? And indeed, the tropes are all present and correct in The Woman in the Window. There’s an unreliable female narrator with a hidden past, a sinister and controlling husband, an upper middle class domestic setting – heck there’s even a sexy handyman with a dark secret for that added frisson of romantic tension! So why have I chosen to review this specific thriller as opposed to any of the others currently gracing the shelves?

Mostly because I actually finished this one – and in 24 hours no less! I do really enjoy a good psychological thriller but some of the tropes of the genre have unfortunately started to become cliche.  As a result, a lot of the thrillers I’ve read recently have been perfectly serviceable but just not doing anything that hasn’t been done before. Nothing wrong with that – if it isn’t broken, why fix it after all – but for a genre that relies on keeping the reader guessing, I have found myself a few chapters ahead of the characters on more than one occasion and there’s nothing quite as frustrating as mentally screaming “It’s him, he CLEARLY did it!” at your protagonist as she falls into bed with the serial killer.

And I’m not saying that doesn’t occasionally happen in The Woman in the Window – I don’t do spoilers in reviews but I’d figured out the root of Anna’s past trauma before it was revealed on the page (which doesn’t make it any less tragic by the way, she’s got justifiable baggage and the reveal is heart-breaking) and the subplot involving the sexy handyman doesn’t take much guessing either. But, for the most part, the main plot of this novel is deeply satisfying and with all the twists, turns and sinister goings on that you need to keep you turning the pages and guessing right up until the end.

Anna herself is also more than just your standard messed up psychological thriller heroine – yes, she has the traumatic past and the now fairly par-for-the-course alcohol issues (seriously, what is it with women in this genre and wine?) – but her former job as a psychologist is really important to the plot and adds more than just gloss to her character. Plus it’s really nice to see a woman in this genre who has (or at least had) a successful professional life that is an important part of her character development and psychological makeup. And Anna knows that she’s messed up – her inner monologue is definitely one of the best things about the book because, in her head at least, she’s sharp and funny and deeply intelligent and that really comes across on the page – if you met her in real life, you’d definitely want to sit down and chat to her over a coffee. It’s just that to the rest of the world, she’s become a crazy recluse who drinks wine like a fish and mixes her meds. And that comes across on the page too – when Anna doubts herself, we as readers doubt her and we understand why other characters doubt her too. Her voice is very well done and serious credit to the author for writing such a great female lead.

The supporting cast are also really well done. Yes there’s a few stereotypes in there (we’re back to to that sexy handyman again!) but the author is aware of and plays with these in interesting ways to really turn the plot on its head at the end of the book. Put it this way – that controlling husband? Bit of a surprise character in the end is all that I’m saying.

The book is also a fantastic homage to film noir – most people will probably have got the connection between the plot and the famous 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window (if you haven’t seen it, do – it’s brilliant) – and Anna herself if a big fan of black and white movies so there’s more than a few nods to the genre in the novel itself. But the Hitchcockian tone of isolation and intrigue created by Anna’s unique situation combined with a twenty-first century spin really does work and, just like Hitchcock’s famous film, it grips from the off and doesn’t let up until the finale.

Overall then this was definitely a riveting read that combines a taut and compelling narrative with a fantastic lead character. It’s not reinventing the wheel but The Woman in the Window is a polished and elegant example of the thriller genre that you can gulp down in one sitting and will keep you guessing right up until the end.

The Woman in the Window by A J Finn is published by HarperCollins and is available now in hardback, audio and ebook from all good booksellers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR! The Meal of Fortune by Phillip Brady

thumbnail_The Meal of Fortune CoverGuns, Gangsters and…..Gourmets? Well colour me intrigued because one of those things doesn’t fit with the others!

As anyone who has followed The Shelf for a while will probably have realised, I’m more Murder at the Vicarage than The Sopranos in my reading tastes – give me tea and cake with the vicar (and a body in the library) over bloodthirsty mafia dons any day. So when the chance to take part in the blog tour for The Meal of Fortune arose, I’ll admit that was initially prepared to give it a miss. But Gourmets? Now that is different! What the heck has cooking got to do with gangsters?

Well, quite a lot in this novel as it turns out! Failing celebrity agent Dermot Jack has one client – lecherous daytime TV chef Marcus Diesel. But Dermot’s luck might just have turned when Marcus’ number one fan, a mysterious Russian oligarch, hires him to represent his wannabe pop star daughter. Disaffected MI5 officer Anna Preston  is just as happy to be handed the chance to resurrect her own career, even if it means crossing paths with Dermot seventeen years after he definitely didn’t break her heart. Add in a diminutive mafia enforcer who definitely has his own agenda, a very impatient loan shark who ‘just wants his money back’ and a pony called Nugget (who, in many ways, could be said to have started the whole thing), and one thing’s for sure. There’ll be winners and losers when the Meal of Fortune finally stops spinning. Oh, and another thing. Anna and Dermot are absolutely NOT about to fall in love again. OK?

As you can probably tell from the above, this is a gangster novel with it’s tongue firmly in its cheek throughout. With a cast of larger than life characters, a series of ever more ludicrous situations and a serious clash between celebrity culture and the mafia intrigue, it’s one of those novels that really just shouldn’t work. But it does and the results are very funny indeed, with just a hint of menace behind the smile the novel wears.

Dermot Jack is, in all honesty, a bit of a louse. Embittered and down on his luck when the novel starts, he’s a man who seems destined to forever make the wrong choices – even if they are sometimes for the right reasons. Anna Preston is a maverick consigned to a desk job because of one little mistake. All of the characters in this novel are, in their own special way, a little bit messed up. And life isn’t going quite how it should for any of them. Throw them all together and it’s a recipe for disaster – and comedic value! On an individual level it’s difficult to warm to the individual characters at times but as an ensemble cast they really work well together and the dialogue is cracking – fast, sharp and with just the right amount of acid to add some sarcasm to proceedings.

The same goes for the plot. From the surprisingly cutthroat world of daytime TV to backstage at Eurovision, via car chases, tracking devices and a short trip to a Russian mafia holding cell, it’s non-stop from the off and with just the right level of genuine menace to stop the caper from becoming a farce. The characters may be crazy but they all have their motivations and it’s the clever interweaving and revealing of these that makes the 350 pages fly.

In summary, The Meal of Fortune reminded me a lot of the film ‘Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels’ with it’s black humour, multiple plot strands and ever increasing daftness. But, like ‘Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels’, it all hangs together seamlessly. The result is a darkly humorous comic novel in the vein of Christopher Brookmyre (One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night springs to mind) or John Niven(The Sunshine Cruise Company) but with it’s own unique flavour. Fans of comic novels should definitely check this out, as should anyone who enjoys their gangsters with just a dash of gourmet style!

The Meal of Fortune by Phil Brady is published by Unbound and is available now from all good booksellers including Unbound, Hive, Waterstones and AmazonMy thanks go to Anne Cater for organising the blog tour and to the author for providing an advance copy of the book in return for a honest and unbiased feature. 

The blog tour continues through to 10 March so please check out the other stops below:

meal of fortune tour poster

Author Q&A

Q&A with Sarah Hawkswood: Author of ‘Marked to Die’

35111625October 1143. His task dispatched, a mysterious archer melts back into the forest leaving a pile of corpses in his wake. The lord Sheriff of Worcester cannot ignore such a brazen attack in the salt road from Wich, nor the death of a nobleman in the wrong place at the wrong time. And so Hugh Bradecote and Serjeant Catchpoll are dispatched to hunt an elusive killer and his gang and put a stop to the mounting attacks.

But it is not easy to get a culprit in their sights with a reeve keen to keep his position at all costs, a lord with his own ends to serve and a distrusting and vengeful widow to whom Bradecote is increasingly attracted.

And thus another mystery for Bradecote & Catchpoll begins! As a keen reader of historical crime fiction, I am delighted to welcome Sarah Hawskwood, author of the Bradecote & Catchpoll series to The Shelf today to talk about some of the inspiration and research behind her latest book, Marked to Die, now available in paperback.

————————————————————-

Sarah, welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books! Marked To Die is the third in your Bradecote & Catchpoll series. For new readers, can you tell us a little about the series in terms of the setting and the characters?

The Bradecote and Catchpoll series is set in Worcestershire in the 1140s, during the period of civil war known as the Anarchy, when the daughter of Henry I, the Empress Maud (Matilda) was trying to oust King Stephen, Henry I’s nephew. It was a period of political turmoil, with much changing of sides by the higher elements of the social hierarchy, but for the average man it just added the threat of greedy and rampaging lords to those of day to day living. Most of the crimes that are investigated are not influenced by politics, but then again, some are.

In terms of the characters, Serjeant Catchpoll is English to the core, phlegmatic and practical, a ’seen it all before’ man of experience. The undersheriff, Hugh Bradecote, is a minor manorial lord, with as much English ancestry as Norman, a man who speaks Norman French as a mark of his class, but is perfectly at home in the language of his manor folk, and one who has never gone further than Winchester, let alone across the Channel. He thinks of himself perhaps as a ’Norman Englishman’. He and Catchpoll are very different, and yet grow over the series to appreciate and respect each other, and by this, the third book, early antagonism is past, and they are very much a team, now augmented by Catchpoll’s ’serjeanting apprentice’, young Walkelin. Walkelin is bright, eager, and methodical in thinking, but still on a steep learning curve.

You’ve previously written a non-fiction book about the First World War and you studied Modern History at Oxford. What is it that led you back to the twelfth century for your fiction?

Whilst my military history focus was on the Peninsular War and then World War I, I always retained an interest in the Anglo-Norman period between the Conquest and the first Plantagenet, Henry II (the ‘Modern History’ period at Oxford began when the Romans left Britain).

I think in part this was because when I was at university the big division was between those who argued that there was continuity after 1066, and those that saw the Conquest as massive change. I think both are true, but at different levels. Politically the change was enormous, an almost total replacement of the most powerful men in the country, and with new architectural styles, and a new language of court and power imposed. Yet at the same time, the life of the peasant or small town artisan in 1130 was not that much different to that of his great- grandfather. Old English was still the language spoken by the majority, and it was only just beginning to be modified, but not overthrown, by a Norman French influence. After all, our grammar today is very much Old English based, not French, and most of the words we use for basic things that existed then as now are the same.

The most interesting level of society is that of the Hugh Bradecotes in England, men whose paternal line went back to to men who came over with the Conquest and its aftermath, but who married the daughters or widows of English thanes, men with no land in Normandy and whose focus and loyalty was to the soil of England. It makes for a fascinating blend.

Bradecote & Catchpoll have to investigate within a strict hierarchical society quite different to that which we know today. How does the societal structure of the era impact on the mysteries you create?

The societal structure is very important in the way that various characters interact, and yet there is another hierarchy, that of experience. This means that whilst Catchpoll always calls Bradecote ‘my lord’, he has not been beyond treating him as the junior partner, although now it is very much more equal. Respect has been learned on both sides, and I think it is that which I feel is most important. Coming from three generations of Royal Marines senior NCOs, I am well aware of both a hierarchical structure, but also that rank is not everything. The wise subaltern knows that whilst his sergeant major calls him ’sir’, he will do well to listen to the suggestions of the far more experienced man before making his decisions.

I also have to work within a framework where women are not treated as equals, and not baulk at it. The women in the books are often strong, but bound by the limitations of the period. To overstep those would be to dress up the contemporary world in old garb and with a different diet.

Overall I have to write a world where the Church is very influential, belief is taken as read, the powerful dominate those without power ( so not much is different there) and social boundaries are pretty rigid, unless one transcends them via the Church, as in the case of Thomas Becket.

Your novels are set in and around Worcestershire. How much does the setting impact on your writing? And why did you choose to set your books in there? 

I set the series in Worcestershire because it was a shire where no one side in the Anarchy held total sway, and it was also interesting topographically, from the swathe of the Severn Plain to the Lickey Hills and the Malverns.

It so happens that for other reasons we now live in Worcestershire, and it means I can ‘recce’ for my novels, working out routes according to old trackways, high ground and bogs, finding churches that, even if few vestiges remain standing of their 12thC presence, are still in the same locations, with the same views. It makes everything even more real to me, and is hugely helpful, since I write very visually. I see every situation as if watching it on a television screen, but am able to wind back and change the actors’ marks and dialogue.

There must be quite a lot of research involved in writing medieval mysteries. How do you research your books? And do you have any recommendations for any readers keen to learn more about the era?

My grounding in the period stands me in good stead for the basics and the political situation, but of course there were huge gaps in practical knowledge, where such things as archaeology have brought new information to light over the last thirty years. I do try and find out as much as possible about how particular trades were conducted at the time, when crops were harvested, how foods were prepared. I want the ‘world’ I create to be as accurate as possible, within reason.

One of the most useful writers on the period was the wonderful Marjorie Chibnall, and I consult her books frequently to check details, but I would recommend also Stephen And Matilda by Jim Bradbury as a starting point.

So is there more Bradecote & Catchpoll on the horizon for fans? Are you ever tempted to explore another era with a new series?

Well, I very much like the idea that there are ‘fans’, and as for more books on the horizon, certainly there are, since the next five in the series are written, and I am in the early stages of Wolf at the Door, number nine.

However, as with all publishing, everything is dependent upon the sales of the current book to enable the next to see print. I foresee the series could eventually reach perhaps twelve to fourteen novels, but I know I have a cut off point in history, and also feel that it must never overstay its welcome.

After Bradecote and Catchpoll? Writing more murder mysteries would be hard, simply because I would hate to drift into writing a more modern version of my ‘old companions’, though something involving the Peninsular War army would be tremendous fun. However, I think if anything I might head backwards, and into rather more ’ straight historicals’. We are talking seventh to ninth century, and I have a general concept of a trilogy. I just have to hope nobody else settles on the same sort of thing first.

———————————————————–

Marked to Die is out now, as are the first two books in the Bradecote & Catchpoll series, Servant of Death and Ordeal by Fire. Fans of historical mysteries, especially Ellis Peter’s Cadfael series, Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of Death series and Bernard Knight’s Crowner John, will find much to enjoy here – as indeed will anyone with a fondness for a good mystery in a well-realised historical setting!

A big thank you to Sarah for taking the time to answer my questions – it has been a pleasure to have you visit The Shelf.

Marked to Die is published by Allison and Busby and is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advance copy of the book in return for a honest and unbiased feature. 

Readathons

Femmuary Reading Plans

The amazing Lauren over at Lauren and the Books has created Femmuary, a celebration of all things women taking place during the month of February. The idea is to celebrate amazing women and their achievements by reading books, watching TV and listening to music that is by, about or empowering of women. I think it’s a fantastic idea and am really keen to use the month as an opportunity to finally get to some of the amazing women’s literature I have on The Shelf.

I kicked off the month with Misfit City: Volume One, a graphic novel that combines the mystery solving elements of Scooby Doo with cult classic The Goonies and that I read in one great gulp yesterday. With an all female cast, it’s a rip-roaring adventure about female friendship and pirate treasure. With colourful illustration and a pacy narrative – as well as some cracking female characters, this was a really great start to the month.

I’m also currently reading The Dry by Jane Harper. As one of the most successful crime novels of last year, I can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to actually get around to reading it. Set in the midst of Australia’s worst drought in over a century, the novel sees policeman Aaron Falk reluctantly returning to his hometown of Kiewarra to investigate the brutal murder of the Hadler family. Harper’s second Falk novel, Force of Nature, is out during February (and already on hold at the library) so Femmuary seems like the perfect opportunity to read her acclaimed first book before that lands. I’m less than 50 pages in at the moment but it’s definitely got that page-turning quality.

For the remainder of the month I don’t exactly have a firm TBR in place but I do have some ideas around what I’d maybe like to read. It’s been a while since I read a classic of any description so I’d definitely like to get a classic novel by a woman in there somewhere. At the moment there are four stand-out choices from my shelves that I really do want to read: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West.

Sackville-West is a completely new author to me, as is Mary Shelley. I’ve read Jane Eyre (loved it) and Wuthering Heights (loathed it) but other than those The Brontë canon remains uncharted reading territory for me. I’m particularly keen to read some of Anne’s work next because I also have Samantha Ellis’ acclaimed biography of her, Take Courage, to read. Virginia Woolf is an author I read at university – I studied To The Lighthouse in the first year of my undergrad degree course and subsequently read her seminal essay A Room of One’s Own – however her other novels remain unexplored for me. As Mrs Dalloway is arguably the most well known, it seems like a good place to reacquaint myself with Woolf’s measured, reflective writing.

On a non-fiction front, I’ve had Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home on the shelves for far too long now. A biography of one of our most celebrated female authors by one of our most celebrated female historians? Sounds like a Femmuary read if ever there was one!

It also wouldn’t be a celebration of female authors for me without a Margaret Atwood novel in there. Alias Grace has been unread on my shelf for far too long. As there’s now the Netflix adaptation on my ‘To Watch’ list as well, this really is a novel I want to get on and read.

Remaining with contemporary literature, there’s also a few more recent releases I’m keen to choose from this month. Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby, which explores the increasingly complex relationship between a working mother and her seemingly perfect live-in nanny, has been getting a lot of buzz since it was released in January, including a fascinating interview with the author in The Guardian’s Review this weekend. I’m also keen to dip into Carman Maria Machado’s much-praised short story collection Her Body & Other Parties which arrived from the library last week.

So those are my Femmuary reading plans. Short of a lottery win that will allow me to give up work and spend the next three weeks reading, there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance I’ll get to all of the above mentioned titles – and there’s a change I may change whim completely and read another female-centred book instead of one of those mentioned above – but this is a loose reading plan for the month and there’s plenty in there that I’m excited about. I’ll let you know how I get on at the end of the month.

If you’re planning to join in with Femmuary do let me know and drop me a link to your posts/videos in the comments below. You can check out Lauren’s channel throughout the month for lots of videos about Femmuary and can also follow the #femmuary on Twitter for links to other bloggers and BookTube people taking part.

Whatever you’re reading I hope you have a fantastic month and, until next time…

Happy Reading! x